individual responsibility

Journeying with coffee

Always plenty to notice while brewing coffee

A short while back while preparing a V60 and watching the coffee level slowly rise to “4 cups” (just about what is needed in the morning for one person I think), I started wondering about rain gauges and how we measure the rainfall. While the first rain gauge was recorded in India in the 4th Century BCE, their design was still being optimised well into the 20th Century. We clearly need to know and agree how to measure rainfall, not just for agricultural reasons, but also for our understanding of the climate. But, more fundamentally, being able to measure quantities precisely and accurately, as well as being able to agree on what we measure seem to be fundamental to any advancements in science. We are perhaps struck by the number of people who have contributed to our knowledge of the world, either directly or indeed indirectly through getting it ‘wrong’. How many times have wrong ideas contributed to an advance in, what we consider at the moment to be, the right ideas?

And then there is the kettle that you may have boiled to prepare the coffee. Hidden by familiarity, the bimetallic switch that ensures that the kettle turns off as the water boils is a fairly recent invention. While the development of our understanding of the perfect brewing temperature for coffee is a mixture of the work of the coffee professionals and the development of the thermometer, itself a journey into science and philosophy.

kettle, V60, spout, pourover, v60 preparation

An over-looked item? It can be instructive to consider how many people have worked to optimise this ‘ordinary’ kitchen object.

Indeed, when we consider the number of people who have contributed to our ability to enjoy our morning coffee it is striking. From the roaster to the farmer, the trader to the inventor: pausing to consider these things may perhaps emphasise to us our dependence on (and growth in) society rather than our individuality.  But then, if we extend our thoughts to the insects and agriculture that enable the coffee plants to thrive, we may come to an awareness of our dependence on the planet; a recognition that “we are profoundly united with every creature….”¹ Does this awareness have an influence on how we behave in and as a society?

In “Styles of Knowing”, Chunglin Kwa argued that just as the forms and styles of painting are responses to the social circumstances, so are styles of knowing². He argued that:

Earth from space, South America, coffee

How do our attitudes affect the science we do, and our perception of the coffee we drink?
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

“[The humanists] strong emphasis on the vita activa [rather than the vita contemplativa] probably contributed to a scientific mentality aimed at sweeping aside obstacles, making decisions, and then taking action, rather than focussing on consensus, like the medieval scholastics. For humanists, it was the will that mattered.”

It seems that in our society as we encounter ever more distractions, there are always more ways for us to believe that we are busy and therefore useful. Does our embracing of this ‘busy life’ contribute to some of the issues that we define as problems? Do we gain control over some of the issues by taking responsibility for parts of them rather than avoiding them? What would happen if we stopped to contemplate our world, maybe just for 30 minutes each day? We could even do it while we journey into the world revealed by our coffee mug. Would it affect the way that we do science, think about society or drink our coffee?

There is a great deal of depth in a cup of coffee. Four cups is not enough. Do let me know where your mind wanders.

¹Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, 2015

²Styles of Knowing: a new history of science from ancient times other present, Chunglin Kwa, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011

Talking about coffee and climate change

coffee cake Muni

Coffee and chocolate, both of which may be badly affected by climate change.

Last week the Royal Meteorological Society hosted an afternoon of talks and discussion titled “Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia: the challenge of climate science communication”. The meeting coincided with a social media campaign “#showthelove” which aimed to highlight something that you fear is at risk because of climate change. As coffee is definitely one of those things that is at risk (and indeed is already being affected by climate change), I went along to the discussion to see what is already being done to communicate climate science and also, what we can do as science communicators.

Although I do not research climate science (my research involves superconductors), there are many links between coffee and the climate: clouds of steam, turbulent movement, periodic waves in the cup and of course the greenhouse effect. Additionally, the risks that coffee faces from the effects of climate change are dire. Summarised in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (AR5), the risks to coffee are threefold, 1) from a warming climate 2) from more extreme weather events, 3) from pests that have increased due to (1) and (2).

Currently about 27million acres of the Earth’s land is used to cultivate coffee, most of which is grown by small scale farmers. The effects of warming mean that this area is going to decrease substantially. For us consumers this is going to mean a dent in our pockets but for the estimated 120 million people worldwide who depend on coffee growing for their livelihood, it is likely to be catastrophic.

room full of scientists and others, RMetS meeting, discussion time

A good crowd meant a lively discussion at “Avoiding Myth, Mayhem and Myopia”. What should we communicate about climate science and how?

The odd weather patterns that are going to be more common are also going to affect the coffee yield. Severe droughts are likely to happen more frequently (this year’s drought in Brazil has actually prompted the government there to consider importing (robusta) coffee beans). Moreover the combination of higher temperatures and greater rainfall that has been seen recently in Central America has ‘helped’ outbreaks of coffee rust while the berry borer beetle is also benefitting from the warmer climate worldwide (at the expense of the coffee crop).

Among climate scientists, the issues are clear (for the world rather than just for coffee). Climate change is already happening and it is caused by human activity in the form of greenhouse gas emissions. The problems are how to communicate this knowledge both to policy makers and industry and to the public so that we, as a society, can do something about it. What do each of these groups want to know and how best to reach them? There were discussions at the meeting about how to engage with politicians and to ensure that the message is properly transmitted so as to translate into action but for me (as a non-climate-scientist who drinks a lot of coffee), the interesting bit was about communicating with the public. In this sense it was great to see that the meeting had attracted a diverse audience with both Oxfam and the Green Party represented. Two questions dominated here: How is climate change affecting us now (/will affect us in the future)? And, what can we each do about it?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: Bob Ward emphasising the urgent need for scientists to communicate effectively.

In terms of the second question, it seemed agreed that the best thing that we each can do is to reduce our carbon footprint. A concern echoed by the Society’s recent communiqué written with other professional bodies (that you can read here). Simple things like driving less or buying more efficient washing machines (or other household appliances when they need to be replaced) can make a difference. Of course, if you wanted to, you can have a go at calculating your carbon footprint using tools such as this guide by David MacKay (it is a lot easier than it may seem at first glance). It was this aspect of what ‘we’ can do that some audience members (including a Green Party representative) thought was a key thing that scientists working with the Royal Meteorological Society needed to communicate. Expect to hear far more about how you can make a difference.

In general, it seemed that there was a clear feeling that the scientists there wanted to communicate climate science and the science of climate change more insistently and more clearly. Indeed there was a rallying call for us all to increase our science communication by Bob Ward (the Policy and Communications Director at the Grantham Research Institute of the London School of Economics). But how should scientists communicate? Is there an intrinsic conflict between the language typically used by scientists and the urgency of the message? Should climate scientists use emotion in their discussions about climate change and what about issues of trust? All these are too much for this piece and so I shall leave those questions until next week, for now perhaps, it would be worth asking people who read this to suggest something that they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint, it doesn’t have to be much and it doesn’t need to be about coffee (though it would be nice if there were some coffee ideas) but please do share your ideas for reducing your carbon footprint, it is likely that they will be useful for others too.

Next week: Do we speak the same language? Is scientific language a help or a hindrance when it comes to communicating climate change?

In the Greenhouse at CoffeeGeek

Coffee Geek and Friends, Coffee Victoria

Coffee Geek and Friends

Earlier this year, a new café opened up in Victoria. Coffee Geek and Friends is located at the far end of Cardinal Place as you enter from Victoria Street. Cardinal Place is an odd sort of shopping centre, a small collection of shops with a glass roof. The building site near Coffee Geek as well as the constant stream of people rushing to and fro make Coffee Geek an ideal place to spend some time watching the world go by. Coffee is by Allpress espresso and is served in very individual mugs. Apparently there is a range of geek-ery in the cafe including a ‘centre piece’ water filter but I admit I missed that as I was too focussed on my coffee. Coffee Geek and Friends is definitely a cafe to keep in mind (along with Irish & June’s) if you need a good place to meet near Victoria Station.

It was a very humid day when I enjoyed my coffee at Coffee Geek and, because the mug had not been pre-warmed before my Americano/long black (my notes don’t specify which) was poured into it, condensation quickly formed around the rim of the mug. The condensation forms for the same reason that dew forms after a cool night: the vapour pressure of the water above the coffee (or the ground) has reached the dew point at the temperature of the mug. The lower the temperature, the lower the vapour pressure has to be for the water in the atmosphere to start condensing into liquid droplets. Hence you will often find that your coffee is more ‘steamy’ on a winter’s, rather than a summer’s day.

Condensation on mug in CGaF

Look carefully at the rim of the mug. Do you see the condensation?

Just over two hundred years ago, William Charles Wells made a study of dew. He observed the weather conditions under which dew formed. He observed on which surfaces dew collected. He noted whether the dew formed on space facing surfaces or ground facing surfaces. After several years of careful study he published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814. His work, showed that the earth radiated heat at night (when it was not being kept warm by the Sun) and therefore that space was cold. Cloud cover reduced the amount by which the ground cooled which implied that cloud cover was acting as a type of blanket for the Earth, keeping the heat trapped inside. Later calculations of the balance between the heat radiated by the Earth and the heat received by the Sun confirmed that, without some heat getting trapped by clouds and ‘greenhouse’ gases in the atmosphere, the earth would be a good 30 C cooler than it is observed to be. Although these calculations are just rough, “back of the envelope” figures, detailed calculations confirm that the Earth is in a delicate balance, heated by the Sun, cooled by radiation and kept warm (and live-able) by a layer of natural greenhouse gases. This “natural greenhouse effect” has been necessary for our development, the problem is that now we are adding yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which threatens to tip the established delicate balance by a few degrees.

Cardinal Place roof, greenhouse

The roof of Cardinal Place shopping centre. A very appropriate place for a meditation on the greenhouse effect

What we now call the greenhouse effect are these extra gases, which are more efficient at trapping heat within our atmosphere. If you can imagine what has been happening over the past three hundred years or so as we have been pumping yet more of these gases into the atmosphere at an accelerated rate, we are in danger of tipping this delicate balance towards further heating of the earth. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference is being held with the aim of requiring all nations to agree to a legally binding commitment to reduce the amount of extra greenhouse gases that we emit to a level that will only result in a temperature increase of 2C. To achieve this requires all of us to work together to reduce our own ‘carbon footprint’. Each of us will have to find our own, individual ways to reduce our emissions but perhaps when we look at the condensation on the rim of our coffee cup, we could remember William Charles Wells and his essay on dew and just think, what can I do, at this moment, to reduce my carbon footprint? Maybe it could be something as simple as turning off that phone (to conserve the battery) and watching what is going on in a café instead. A small gesture but one that would be good for us as well as the earth.

Coffee Geek and Friends is at the northern end of Cardinal Place shopping centre (opposite Westminster Cathedral).

As a Coffee Geek note, I would like to just comment that my notes on Coffee Geek and Friends were written using a “linux-sure” ball point pen. Not particularly environmentally friendly but definitely quite geeky.