drums

Good vibrations at Rosslyn, Mansion House

Coffee at Rosslyn, Mansion House, EC4N, coffee clock, base
Coffee time at Rosslyn, EC4N. Why is it that base 60 was used as a counting system in Mesopotamia? And why is it that the echoes of this are still seen in our clocks and the angles of a circle (unless you use the radian system) but not in our everyday counting system?

It’s always “coffee time” at Rosslyn apparently, at least according to the clock above the door. In front of you as you enter the cafe is the counter and, as you move down to collect your coffee (for take-away) the day’s edition of the Financial Times is stuck to the notice board where you wait. An interesting touch, somehow making a resonant connection with the City coffee houses of old such as Jonathan’s, just around the corner, where the stock market was originally located.

There are not many stools or tables in Rosslyn, which appears to be designed as more of a take away space. Nonetheless, we found a perch by the window overlooking the bench seats outside. It is a perfect place to watch the world go by. The massive junction of Poultry providing plenty to see.

Coffee is roasted by Modern Standard and there are bags of roasted coffee on sale (together with some of the mugs) at the other end of the counter to the FT. The occasional (welcome) plant reminds us that life is not just concrete, glass and cars/buses. Although it was sunny, it was not yet hot and so we had a soy hot chocolate and a long black, went back to take our seats and waited for the drinks to arrive.

The wooden spoon that came with the coffee was an interesting touch, reminding me of Barn the Spoon and his work in Hackney. While the clock got me thinking about our use of base 10 as a counting system and the older systems that used base 60.

coffee, hot chocolate, plant, mugs, wooden spoon.
A quiet moment with a coffee and a hot chocolate at Rosslyn. Notice the spoon.

Contemplating these things we noticed a strange effect in my coffee. Or rather, I noticed it and brought attention to it by taking repeated photographs of the coffee while tapping the bench just to try to capture what I was seeing: a resonance pattern on the coffee surface. At this point, your mind may connect to several different things. There’s the resonance effects involved in the Whispering Gallery in St Pauls close by to Rosslyn. There are the resonance patterns caused in bells, drums and violins and the relation between these, air movement and music. There’s the fact that these movements initially revealed the excellence of the table as a movement sensor: the ripples on the coffee revealing footsteps behind us rather like we detect earthquakes in the earth. (My later attempts at photographs were in that sense “faked” as I was tapping the table beside the cup to try to reproduce the effect so that it was visible on my camera).

Or there was the fact that this movement in the coffee cup is exactly the same phenomenon as something in our lab. But whereas in the cup it is an interesting, almost aesthetic feature, in the lab it can be a major pain to deal with.

The problem comes in that the coffee cup was in the middle of the bench. This had been an accident in terms of where we were seated but it had large effects. Because the bench table has its legs at each end, but nothing in the middle, the table itself acts as if it is a massive drum. And one of the more fundamental resonances of a drum has the maximum movement at the centre of the drum: the edges don’t move much but that bit in the middle oscillates wildly. In the coffee cup this manifests as a ripple pattern on the coffee surface, reflecting the street outside in slightly distorted fashion. In the lab this means that some of our instruments become incredibly difficult to use.

ripple pattern coffee Rosslyn
Can you see it? The ripple pattern caused by the coffee being on the drum of the table at Rosslyn. An interesting effect to watch in coffee but what if this sort of thing happens in a physics lab?

Consider for example the Atomic Force Microscope (AFM). This microscope is able to resolve the structure of films down to an almost atomic resolution. It does this by monitoring the resonance of a small silicon cantilever as it approaches the surface of the material being studied. Just for a moment, put a wooden sugar stirring stick (or a lollipop stick) on the edge of a table and ‘twang’ it. It vibrates just as the silicon cantilever does in the AFM. Then think, what if you put the stick in honey and ‘twanged’ it – or put a magnet on the end of it and ‘twanged’ it over a bit of iron, how would the oscillation change? This is what the AFM does but with the atomic forces that are present when you get very close to the surface of a sample. But the phrase “very close” is key. Typically, the cantilever will be nanometers from the surface of the sample and, as it is very sensitive to the forces at the surface of the sample, if that sample moves because the instrument is vibrating up and down on the floor, the image will be at best blurry and unusable and at worst, you are going to be damaging your cantilevers.

And so, it is important to ensure that the AFM is placed in a suitable area of the lab: not in the middle of a floor in a high level building because that will just act as a drum in exactly the same way as the coffee cup was being vibrated at Rosslyn. If you’re not fortunate enough to have the AFM in a basement lab, you could place the AFM (and other vibration sensitive instruments) at the corner of the room, so the vibration amplitude of the floor-drum is minimised. You could also try to place the instrument on concrete blocks to ‘damp’ the vibration. An extreme example of this sort of damping is the ‘quiet labs’ of Lancaster University just next to the M6 motorway. These labs have been designed to minimise vibration noise and the team there routinely achieve atomic level resolution with their atomic force microscopes.

The silence of an area next to the M6 contrasting with the noise of the City. The directions that contemplating a cup of coffee takes you are always surprising.

Rosslyn is at 78 Queen Victoria Street, EC4N 4SJ

Echoes of Bach at Amoret, Hammersmith

Amoret coffee Hammersmith

Amoret, so new it still didn’t have its name on the outside.

Amoret is a new addition to the coffee scene over in Hammersmith. Just up the road from the Hammersmith & City line entrance of Hammersmith tube station, I nearly missed this cute cafe when I walked past as it had no name on its frontage, nor did it have the chalk board that is characteristic of many cafes. Fortunately however, I had the address and so double backed to find a great little cafe. It appears that that majority of Amoret’s business comes from take-away orders although there is a small seating area at the back (it is small, when we visited in February, there were two chairs and a couple of tables/stools).  If you are fortunate enough though to be able to take a seat at the back of the cafe, I would thoroughly recommend doing so. Not only can you enjoy good coffee in a nice environment, the friendly people behind the bar were very happy to chat about their coffee and cafe. Moreover, there is plenty to notice from this observation post at the back of the cafe.

When we visited, the espresso based coffee was by Campbell and Syme, with V60s that featured different guest roasters (though it seems that other roasters also regularly feature for the espressos). I had a coffee from Panama, roasted by Union, which featured the word “caramel” in its tasting notes. I have simple tastes (‘caramel’ or ‘chocolate’ descriptions always go down well) but it was a great coffee. Complementary water was available at the counter with take-away cups (and water ‘glasses’ ) that were compostable and biodegradable*. As the very friendly staff brought my coffee to the table, I noticed that the ‘table’ that I had put my water on was in fact a metal drum that sounded ‘clang’ as the cup was put down. The sound of the drum immediately suggested that the drum was hollow. We all recognise the sound of a hollow drum, it is partly about the pitch of the sound, but partly about the echoes that we hear as the sound reverberates inside the metal.

Kettle drum at Amoret

After I had enjoyed my filter! The table-drum at Amoret. Does the drum sound the same in summer?

Although it appears simple, the sound made by the drum is influenced by many aspects of the drum’s construction and surroundings. The stiffness of the metal and the atmospheric pressure affect the way that the drum’s surface vibrates, while the size of the drum and the speed of sound in air also affect the note, or pitch, that we hear. How is the sound of the drum affected by a change in its surroundings? For example, if the atmosphere in Amoret got much warmer, the speed of sound would increase, how would that affect the sound of the table-drum?

A few years ago, Professor Timothy Leighton was wondering how the properties of the atmosphere affected the sounds of musical instruments. Specifically, he wondered what instruments would sound like on other planets. Take Venus. Venus is a planet with a very dense, very hot atmosphere. The surface temperature on Venus is 457C (Earth’s average is approx 14C) while the atmospheric pressure is 90 Bar (Earth’s average: 1 Bar). As it gets hotter, the speed of sound increases and so, to a first approximation, the note made by the drum-table at Amoret will sound higher as the air gets warmer. However, the metal of the drum is also hotter on Venus (so less stiff) and the density and pressure of Venus’ atmosphere will act to further complicate things. So to start thinking about how things sound on Venus, we would be more sensible to think about a simpler instrument, such as an organ, which is only affected by the change of the speed of sound†. Take the famous case of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor. Played on Venus, the researchers found that, rather than be in D minor (293.66 Hz), it would have the pitch of F minor (at 349.23 Hz). You can hear Bach’s Toccata on Venus (Mars and Titan) here.

Venus

The clouds of Venus photographed by Hubble. Image credit © NASA/JPL

What about a human voice, how would a person sound on Venus (were they able to survive)? In humans, the pitch of the voice is determined by the rate of vibration of the vocal cords. So it is possible to construct a speech synthesiser to imitate human speech by modelling such a voice ‘box’. Erasmus Darwin, (grandfather to Charles) made such a device in around 1770 with wood, leather and silk‡. Darwin’s voice synthesiser could pronouce the sounds ‘p’, ‘m’, ‘b’ and ‘a’ and so ‘mama’, ‘papa’, ‘map’ and ‘pam’, which by some accounts was convincing enough to fool people into thinking there was a small child in the room. Why did people think that Erasmus’ ‘child’ was small? It turns out that just as with the drum, when we listen to people speak, we do not just register their pitch but also the echoes on their voice. Each time we make a sound, the sound travels from the vocal cords down to the lungs (where it gets reflected upwards) and up to the mouth (where it gets reflected downwards). We subconsciously listen for these echoes and, if they take a long time to appear, we deduce that the person is large (there is a greater distance between their voice box and their lungs). If the echo comes back quickly, clearly the distance between the voice box and the lungs is smaller and hence the person is smaller. Just like the drum at Amoret, the human voice is a bit more tricky to model on Venus than Erasmus Darwin’s device allowed for.

Leighton and co-author Andi Petulescu considered the question of the sound of the human voice on Venus in their 2009 paper. Firstly they said, the density of Venus’ atmosphere would make the vocal cords vibrate more slowly, so the person speaking would sound as if they had a deeper voice. But secondly, the high speed of sound on Venus would mean that those echoes that we listen for would come back very quickly, so we would perceive the speaker as being small. What does this sound like? A few years ago, a Dutch TV show set this very topic as a question for their annual quiz and answered it by one of the co-hosts singing Banarama’s “Venus” with, and without, the Venus voice changing software of Leighton. If you understand Dutch, the full clip is below. If you don’t understand Dutch but would just like to find out how you would sound on Venus while singing Banarama, forward to 7 minutes in for the version on Earth and 7m46 in for the Venus version.

It is not easy for us to travel to Venus to investigate whether Prof. Leighton was correct. It is possible for us to repeatedly visit Amoret to investigate how the coffee cups sound as they are put on the drum as the temperature changes around us. This seems a fantastic excuse to revisit to me.

 

Amoret is at 11 Beadon Road, W6 0EA

‡”Erasmus Darwin – A life of unequalled achievement” by Desmon King-Hele was published by Giles de la Mare Publishers (1999)

* It should be noted that ‘compostable’ plastic has a very specific definition that does not mean that it can necessarily be composted in the way that you or I would understand the term, as I described in more detail here. Nonetheless, it is definitely a significant improvement from conventional plastic and I would love to see more cafes follow suit with environmentally sound packaging.

† Of course this comes with a fair few caveats, not least the fact that the organ has to have flue pipes only. I would thoroughly recommend browsing Professor Timothy Leighton’s excellent webpage on this and other aspects of acoustics which you can find here.