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