Time out

Perhaps an unusual post but there is so much opportunity to stop, think and notice at the moment. Whether it is relaxing in a café with a cold brew or sipping a take-away in a park. There is time to slow down and ponder. Here are three points that have been puzzling recently. What do you think? Perhaps you have other things that you ponder while sitting in a café? Let me know either in the comments section below, on twitter or on Facebook.

oat milk, kone, filtering

Oat milk filtering through the Kone filter – but what does oat milk tell us about Brownian motion, molecular ‘reality’ and the nature of a scientific theory?

Molecules, the atmosphere and oat milk.

On pouring home-made oat milk into a cup of black tea, it is noticeable that a large part of the oat milk is dense and falls to the bottom of the cup (before being stirred by the turbulence in the tea). A similar phenomenon is found in the rarefaction of gases through the height of the atmosphere and in the distribution of dye in water paint. This latter effect was used to establish the existence of molecules back in 1910. The idea that Brownian motion was caused by molecules had been problematic because there was no way to see molecules in a liquid producing the Brownian motion. The theory linking the two was only developed properly in the early twentieth century. What makes a scientific theory? Is it legitimate to postulate something that cannot currently be observed experimentally?

Packing value

Why does roasted coffee often come in plastic packaging that is unrecyclable and not very reusable? What could prompt a move to a more circular economy. Would it be possible to recycle plastic bottles into coffee ‘boxes’ with an air valve at the bottle top (see pictures). This would increase the recyclability without seeming to affect the taste of the coffee?

bottle, coffee bottle, coffee box, coffee packaging

An idea for a circular economy suitable coffee packaging? Recycled plastic bottles as airtight coffee containers.

Related to that, what are your coffee values? Do you favour taste and aroma, traceability, sustainability? Does the packaging that your coffee arrives in feature? Which of these is more important to you? Does the way you drink coffee reflect this?

Footfall past a café

How many people are walking past the café you are sitting in each minute? How many does that translate to per day (accounting for differences in day/night footfall)? Assuming the paving stones remain the same, how long would it be until the successive footprints of all these people caused erosion of the pavement surface? What are the implications of this for the geological features near you?

Whatever you think about in a café or while drinking a coffee, enjoy your time taken out to think. Perhaps you will notice something (or realise something) very interesting or noteworthy and if you have any thoughts on any of the above do let me know either in the comments, on Twitter or on Facebook.


Pushing it at Lever and Bloom, Bloomsbury

Lever Bloom coffee

Lever and Bloom under a blue sky.

Does a take-away need to be rushed? A coffee so quick that there is ‘not enough time to prepare a flat white’? Are we always so preoccupied with the distractions of our day that we consume our coffee merely for the pleasant caffeine kick that it provides?

Lever and Bloom in Bloomsbury is a great example of why this does not have to be, indeed should not be the case. Since 2015, Lever and Bloom have been operating out of a cart on Byng Place close to UCL and a number of other research institutes. The character of the surroundings really does affect the space and both times I have been to Lever and Bloom I have either met interesting people in the queue or overheard snippets of intriguing conversation about history I know nothing about.

Coffee Bloomsbury reusable coffee cup

Long black in a keep-cup and telephone box in Byng Place.

It is easy to spot the coffee cart in the corner. Firstly, it is bright red and quite eye catching but secondly because of the queue forming in front of it. Don’t be put off though, the queue moves very quickly so you won’t wait long even if you are in a rush. Queueing however does give you an opportunity to peer into the cart. Space is used extremely efficiently. with each piece of equipment  apparently having its own perfect home. It reminded me of a childhood game of trying to fit in as many objects as possible into a matchbox. A cabinet on the table in front of the cart displays cakes including cinnamon rolls (sadly sold out by the time I arrived in the afternoon). It was also nice to see the number of people ahead of me in the queue who were using re-usable cups.

The lever of the name refers to the (Izzo Pompei) lever espresso machine that is used on the cart. It was fascinating to watch the ground beans being carefully tamped and the lever being pulled to prepare the espresso. Although there is some debate as to the optimum water pressure needed for preparing an espresso, the standard pressure is 9 Bar; water is pushed through the tamped grinds at nine times the atmospheric pressure at sea level. Watching these espressos being prepared reminded me of preparing ceramic samples of an interesting magnetic material a few years ago. We were interested in the electrical properties of a class of materials called manganites. To prepare the materials for measurement we first had to grind the pre-cursor powders (but with a pestle and mortar, no burr grinders) and then, after a couple of further preparatory steps, press them into a pellet ready for firing in the oven. The machine used for pressing the pellets had a lever, not dissimilar to that on the espresso machines and yet, the pressure that we used for the pellets was roughly 1000 Bar. This high pressure was needed so that dense pellets of manganite material would be formed when we heated it in the oven (typically at 1200 ºC). Just as a good espresso depends on the pressure and then the temperature and time of extraction, so the properties of the pellet would be affected by the pressure and then temperature and time of firing in the oven.

Portland Stone fossils

Fossils in Portland Stone. It is astonishing what is revealed when you slow down and notice the buildings around you.

Similar effects affect the rocks of the earth, something that is particularly visible in the area around Lever and Bloom. A geological walking tour around Byng Place, Tottenham Court Road and towards the British Museum illustrates this particularly well. Behind Lever and Bloom, the church of Christ the King is built from Bath Stone. An oolitic limestone, this type of rock is formed of compressed sand and bits of shell. Much as the manganite samples of my study before they were fired in the oven but of a more interesting colour. Heading towards Gower St and the impressive UCL building is made of Portland Stone. Another limestone, this building material is a goldmine for urban fossil explorers. Continuing the walk, on Tottenham Court Road, the Mortimer Arms pub is fronted by quartzite while Swedish Green Marble adorns 90 Tottenham Court Road. Quartzite and Marble are both types of metamorphic rock, formed by pressing together different precursor materials at high pressure and temperature. Other types of marble can be seen on the tour, suggesting the influence of pressure and temperature of formation on the rock structure as well as the type of precursor rock.

It would seem that such a walking tour is perfectly timed for a longer style of coffee, perhaps a latte (in a re-usable cup of course) from such a centrally located place as Lever and Bloom. And of course, assuming you are using a re-usable, there is even more to ponder. The pressure and temperature during the manufacture of the re-usable cup would have affected the properties of the cup (or in my case, glass).

Let me know if you spot any interesting rocks or fossils during your time at Lever and Bloom but whatever you do, I hope that you can enjoy your coffee and then slow down to enjoy it a bit more.

Lever and Bloom is at Byng Place, WC1E 7JJ

Reflections on physics and coffee

BeanThinking started as a way of slowing down and appreciating connections, often between a coffee and the physics of the wider world but also in terms of what can be noticed in any café. Perhaps, for this first post of 2017, it’s worth spending five minutes looking at your coffee while you drink it to see what you notice. Here are a few coffee connections that occurred to me recently:

reflections, surface tension

Reflections on a coffee.

Parallel lines and surface reflection: The parallel lines on the ceiling of a café were reflected in a long black. Surface tension effects on the coffee meant that the reflections were curved and not at all parallel. A piece of dust on the surface of the coffee was revealed in the reflection by the curved reflections of the ceiling. Astronomers can use similar effects (where images of a star appear in a different location to that expected) to infer the presence of dark objects between distant stars and their telescope. This gravitational lensing can be used to detect quasars or clusters of galaxies.




layering of coffee long black

Layers of coffee

Layering of crema as the coffee is consumed: The coffee stain effect and this layering of the crema suggests a connection between a coffee cup and geology. It used to be my habit to take a mug of tea with me when I taught small groups of undergraduates. In the course of one of these tutorials, a student (who had been observing similar layering in my tea mug) said, “You drink your tea faster when it is cooler than when it is hot”. Full marks for observation, but not sure what it said about his attention during my tutorials! Similar observations though can help geologists estimate the age of different fossils.


interference patterns on coffee

Bubbles in coffee

Bubble reflections: An old one but the interference patterns caused by bubbles on the surface of the coffee are full of fascinating physics. The fact that the bubbles are at the side of the cup and seem to be grouped into clusters of bubbles may also be connected with surface tension effects (although there is a piece of weather lore that connects the position of the bubbles to the weather. If anyone ever does any experiments to investigate this particular lore, I’d love to hear about them).



Coffee, Van Gogh

Art in a coffee cup

Van Gogh’s Starry Night: The effects of vortices and turbulence caused the crema of a black coffee to swirl into patterns reminiscent of this famous painting by Van Gogh. As a result of posting this image on Twitter, @imthursty sent me a link to this preprint of a paper submitted to the arxiv: the connections between Van Gogh’s work and turbulence. A great piece of coffee combining with art and science.


So many connections can be made between tea, coffee and science and the wider world, I’d love to see the connections that other people make. So, if you see some interesting physics, science or connections in your coffee cup, why not email me, or contact me via FB or Twitter.


Wonders of the World at Espresso Base, Bloomsbury

Hasten coffee, long black, black coffee, espresso base

‘Has Bean’ coffee at Espresso Base

Espresso Base is exactly the sort of café that you want to make sure that you know about, but part of you is selfishly quite happy if not too many others do. It is not that the the place is small, far from it. There is plenty of space in the courtyard at Espresso Base, beside St George’s Church, to sit and enjoy your coffee. The thing is, it is great to have the place almost entirely to yourself. With few others around, the oasis-like quality of the place is emphasised, astonishing as it is so close to the busy Bloomsbury Way. Only this oasis serves great coffee. Their coffee is roasted by Has Bean, which I admit is the reason that I first dropped into Espresso Base a few weeks ago. The black coffee that I had was certainly very good and the environment in which to enjoy the coffee was thought provoking which, for me, is an important aspect of any café. Cafés need to be places that you can go, slow down and notice things and Espresso Base certainly falls into that group of cafés that I would highly recommend both for the coffee and the café.

stone recycling, slate, slate waterfall, geology

The purple slate waterfall feature in the courtyard area at Espresso Base. You can just see the stone with the rectangular holes carved into it at the bottom of the wall.

On the day that we arrived, it had been raining. For a café with seating outside this may have posed a problem but the chairs had been thoughtfully folded so that they remained dry. The rain had however seeped into some of the paving slabs around the chairs and so that was the first thing to notice, the fact that many objects when wet appear darker, why? Opposite our seating was a rock feature that to me looked like a waterfall made out of slate, the slate had a purple tinge which again, had been made slightly more purple by the rain. Below the slate ‘waterfall’ and forming a wall, were a series of stones that had clearly been taken here from somewhere else. I say ‘clearly’, because the stone at the bottom had two holes that had been carved out of it, one square, one slightly more rectangular. Presumably the stone had been used as part of a gate post in the past and yet there is no evidence of the remains of a gate on the other side of the courtyard (I think that a gate post would have to be deeper than the square indent in the paving slab that is at the other side of the courtyard). It is therefore more likely that the stone had been used somewhere else beforehand and ‘recycled’ for use in this wall. This juxtaposition of slate above and recycled stone below reminded me of the early geologists and how they identified the Great Glen fault that runs through Loch Ness in Scotland. Slate is a metamorphic rock, meaning that it has undergone changes due to the high pressure and temperatures within the Earth. Slate is however quite a low-grade metamorphic rock so, compared with higher grade metamorphic rocks, it has not been subjected to that much pressure or that much temperature. By mapping the lower grade and higher grade metamorphic rocks along the Great Glen, the early geologists noticed a line that sharply separated the metamorphic rock types. This fault would have, in the past, caused earthquakes as the ground slipped along the fault.

Replica of Mausoleum of Halicarnassus

The steeple of St George’s church, Bloomsbury Way. The statue on top is of King George I rather than King Mausolus in  his chariot. The statue of Mausolus, his wife/sister Artemisia and a horse from his chariot can be seen in the British Museum.

On leaving Espresso Base I turned and looked up at the church. If you get a chance, take a look at the steeple. Particularly ornate, the stepped steeple is apparently built to the description of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus by Pliny the Elder. This monument was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World and was built to be the burial chamber of King Mausolus of Karia. Described as standing approximately 40 m in height, this massive stepped, marble pyramid stood on top of 36 columns surrounded by statues. Topping the pyramid was a statue of King Mausolus himself, in a chariot. This ancient wonder is thought to have been destroyed by an earthquake in the fourteenth century after which the stones were ‘recycled’ by the Knights of Malta to build a fortress. A history that is aptly mirrored in the geology and stone recycling evident in the courtyard of Espresso Base.


Espresso Base can be found in the courtyard of St George’s church, Bloomsbury Way, WC1A 2SE

Artefacts from the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus can be seen in room 21 of the British Museum (conveniently just around the corner from Espresso Base).

Geology help from: “Geology Today, Understanding our planet”, Murck/Skinner, John Wiley & Sons, 1999