Pope Francis

Bee-ing positive at the Sugar Pot, Kennington

coffee and cake Kennington

Banana bread and coffee with a sugar pot in the background at Sugar Pot, Kennington

What is it that makes a great café? A space to slow down and think? Good coffee and cakes? A local business that forms part of its local community and gives back to that community in different ways? As I was looking around for a new café to try, I was reminded of Sugar Pot in Kennington. Their website suggested that it ticked all of these boxes and so I was eager to try it (so eager in fact that I didn’t note the opening times, they close at 3 on week-days which is a problem when you arrive at about 2.55). So a second attempt at trying Sugar Pot was arranged, this time safely before lunch. This time, in the morning, there were quite a few chairs and tables outside the café in a roped off area of the street. (We hadn’t noticed this on the first occasion we visited as they had all been piled up inside the shop by the time we arrived). Most of these tables were occupied indicating that it is clearly an attractive place for locals to meet and chat over coffee. Fortunately there were also a fair number of tables inside which suited us as a café often offers more to ponder inside than out (though outside offers a different perspective particularly for people watching).

Inside, each table has an individual character and one in particular offered several points to think about both in terms of physics and aesthetics (you will have to visit to understand). However, it was elsewhere that my attention was drawn that day. Coffee is roasted locally by Cable Bakery while the cakes are from John the Baker of the Kennington Bakery. Sugar Pot definitely gets a tick in the “allergy friendly” box because they answered confidently (and with required caveats about traces) my dreaded question “does it contain nuts?” So I was able to enjoy a lovely slice of banana bread with my coffee. Most of the usual espresso based drinks are available (but not listed on the menu) together with a French Press coffee for those who prefer a non-espresso brew.

Interior Sugar Pot, Kennington

Noticeboard, magazines and coffee counter at Sugar Pot in Kennington

The community feel of the café was immediately apparent with a notice board adjacent to the counter being packed with notices of different activities happening around the locality and within Kennington Park which is just opposite. Underneath the counter were books and magazines and an advert for volunteering with the local bee keeping and urban farming organisation Bee Urban. This is indeed another way that Sugar pot gets involved in its local community. The coffee grounds are donated to Bee Urban for use in their Kennington Park based composting facility. Bees of course have an Albert Einstein link with physics as he is alleged to have said

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollinators, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

I do not know if he really did say this but it is a sad reflection on our society that rather than address our environmental crimes we are researching pollinating with drones. However, it turns out the the bee has a much more exciting, almost shocking, link with physics and one that I only discovered thanks to the excellent book “Storm in a Teacup” by Helen Czerski¹. The bee is indeed a very positive creature.

ultra violet, bee, bumble bee

The world looks very different to a bee. Image © www.gardensafari.net

Whether or not they have a happy disposition, it seems that 94% of bees are, electrically speaking, positively charged². They pick up a static charge while flying through the air in a similar way to a balloon being rubbed on your hair. Flowers meanwhile have a negative charge meaning that in addition to colour, shape, scent and pattern, bees can recognise flowers by their electric fields. These fields in turn mean that pollen from the flower ‘jumps off’ and adheres to the bees fur before the bee has even landed, increasing the efficiency of the bee as a pollinator. But it turns out that there is much more to it. When the positive bee lands on the negative flower, there is a charge transfer that results in a change of the electric field around the flower for a duration of 100 seconds or so. By constructing artificial flowers held at different voltages containing either a sugar reward or a bitter centre, researchers at Bristol university found that bees could learn to recognise which ‘flowers’ contained the sugar and which were too bitter to be visited by sensing the electric field around the ‘flower’. It suggests that the changing electric field of real flowers provides a mechanism by which the bee can recognise if a flower has been recently visited by another bee and so been recently pollenated. This would mean that by ‘feeling’ the electric field of the flower, the bee may decide that it would be more rewarding to carry on to a differently charged flower. You can read more about the research in the paper here.

It seems to me that learning about how the bee senses its environment reveals even more about the amazing way that nature (and physics) works. And this offers a link back to Sugar Pot. On the shelf behind the counter back at Sugar Pot was a card that had the message “Keep safe, live to be”. What does it mean “live to be”? In the environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges everyone to slow down and notice things such as the bee commenting that “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” He goes on “… when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously… True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data...”³ Which is one reason that in order to be, we may want to come back and take a closer look at those bees. Taking time to experience our coffee in a relaxing space such as Sugar Pot and to watch and ponder as the bee uses senses of which we are barely aware can never be a waste of our time. Indeed, it is possible that our world may depend on it.

¹Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski, Transworld Publishers, 2016

² Clarke et al., “Detection and learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees”, Science, 340, 6128, 66 (2013).

³The passages quoted are from paragraphs 215 and 225 respectively of Laudato Si which can be read online.

Sugar Pot can be found at 248 Kennington Park Road, SE11 4DA

Beautiful coffee

beauty in a coffee, coffee beauty

Interference patterns on bubbles in a coffee cup.

In the UK Science Museum’s library there is a book, written in 1910, by Jean Perrin called “Brownian Movement and Molecular reality”. To some extent, there is nothing surprising about the book. It describes a phenomenon that occurs in your coffee cup and the author’s own attempts to understand it. Nonetheless, this little book is quite remarkable. It is perhaps hard, from our perspective in 2016, to imagine that at the time of Perrin’s work, the idea of the existence of molecules in water was still controversial. It was even debated whether it was legitimate to hypothesise the existence of molecules (which were, almost by definition, un-detectable). However, none of that is really relevant to the question confronting today’s Daily Grind. Today, the question is how can this book help us to find beauty in a coffee cup?

What does a one hundred year old book have to do with finding beauty in a coffee cup? Perrin received the Nobel Prize in 1926 for his work establishing the molecular origins of Brownian motion and, associated with it, his determination of the value of Avogadro’s constant. It is perhaps why he wrote the book. (The experiment that he used to do this is described in a previous Daily Grind article that can be found here.) It is in his description though, both of the theory and the experiments involving Brownian motion that this little book is relevant for today. One word repeatedly crops up in Perrin’s description of Brownian motion. It comes up when he describes the theory. It comes up when he describes other people’s experiments. It comes up when he describes bits of the maths of the theory. The word? Beautiful*.

Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi,
by Elliott & Fry, vintage print, (1930s),
Thanks to National Portrait Gallery for use of this image.

Throughout history, many scientists have recognised, and worked for, the beauty that they see in the science around them. In a 2007 TED talk, Murray Gell-Mann said

“What is striking and remarkable is in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than a theory that is inelegant.”

So it is interesting that, although we may agree that scientific theories can be “beautiful” or “elegant”, we do not seem to have a way of quantifying what precisely beauty is. It is similar for those things that are beautiful that we find in every day life. The beauty of a sunset, or the way the light catches the ripples on the surface of a lake, these are things that we recognise as beautiful without being able to articulate what it is about them that makes them so. Instead we recognise beauty as something that strikes us when we encounter it. Elaine Scarry has talked about this as a “de-centering” that we experience when we come across beauty. Scarry writes that, when we encounter the beautiful:

“It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world”.¹

It is therefore quite concerning that she goes on to suggest that conversations about beauty (of paintings, poems etc) have been banished from study in the humanities “…we speak about their beauty only in whispers.”¹ This does not seem to have happened yet in science where it is still common to hear about a beautiful equation or an elegant experiment. But is there a creeping ‘ideological utilitarianism” in the scientific community? According to Michael Polanyi ²

“Ideological utilitarianism censures Archimedes today for speaking lightly of his own practical inventions and his passion for intellectual beauty, which he expressed by desiring his grave to be marked by his most beautiful geometrical theorem, is dismissed as an aberration.”²

While we may recoil from this sentiment, what do we write (or expect to read) in grant applications, scientific papers, popular science or even scientific outreach? How often is the utility of a piece of research emphasised rather than its elegance?

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Does an appreciation of beauty help with a wider understanding of justice and environmental concerns?
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Another interesting question to ponder is whether our ability to appreciate (and discuss) beauty has wider ramifications. As many others have argued before her, Scarry suggests that the appreciation of the beauty in the world connects with our sense of justice¹. Recently the Pope too, in his great environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’ wrote³:

“If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.”

Could it be true that part of the motivation that we need to change our ecological habits or stimulate our search for wider social justice is enhanced by our ability to slow down and appreciate the beautiful, wherever and whenever we find it?

So to return to our coffee. Is there something, anything, about our coffee or our tea that gives us such a radical de-centering experience? Can we, like Jean Perrin, appreciate the subtle beauty of the molecular interactions in our cup? Do we appreciate the moment as we prepare our brew? Or are we ideological utilitarians, seeing in our cup just another caffeine fix?

 

* Technically, the book in the Science Museum Library is a translation of Perrin’s work by Frederick Soddy. It is possible that it is Soddy’s translation rather than Perrin’s work itself that uses the word ‘beautiful’ repeatedly. It would be interesting to read Perrin’s book in its original French.

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the Science Museum Library for being such a valuable resource and to the staff at the library for being so helpful.

 

“Brownian movement and molecular reality”, Jean Perrin, translated by F. Soddy, Taylor and Francis Publishers (1910)

1 Elaine Scarry, “On Beauty and Being Just”, Duckworth Publishers, 2006

2 Michael Polanyi, “Personal Knowledge, towards a post-critical philosophy” University of Chicago Press, 1958

3 §215 Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, 2015