Connectivity at Populus, Singapore

Inside Populus

The cool interior of Populus

A friend recommended that we try a café in her neighbourhood near Outram, in Singapore. So, with some time to spare we walked up the hill and into the welcoming air conditioning of The Populus Cafe in Neil Road. The coffee is roasted by 2º North and there is an extensive menu of both coffee based drinks and a seasonal filter selection. There was also a range of iced drinks on the menu which in the Singapore heat were tempting, but I opted for the 6oz Long Black. Given more time, or a second visit, I would certainly try the filter, but this time an appointment across the island was calling. There seemed too to be a very good lunch selection on the menu, but again, the lunch appointment elsewhere meant that it was just the 6oz long black that day.

It should be possible to take some time back from a busy schedule full of appointments and concerns and sit back and ponder the connections in any café. Having run from one set of concerns and soon to have to go off to another, would this be possible in 30ºC+ heat? The comfortable space of Populus provided a perfect place to test this question. Sitting back while sipping my coffee, the first thing that struck me was the wood, arranged in different geometrical patterns on the walls. The floors too were decorated with hexagonal stone tiles while the door was glass. There was a different pattern on the door, but what was it? Staring at it for a while, I thought about the schematics you sometimes see for a connected world, each of us a point connected to the others (how true is it that we are all 6 hand shakes away from everyone else?). Maybe this fitted with the name of the café? My companion in these reviews instead thought of crystals and the way that crystal structures are represented with lines between the atoms. While loading the photograph of the door onto the website, I saw a pattern of flowers. It seems that the pattern on the door formed and reformed with each new view.

door, Populus

Looking through the door of Populus. What patterns do you see?

Then there was the cup. A black coffee in a black cup, with umbral and penumbral shadows (as pointed out by @Bob_MatPhys on Twitter). A few years ago there was great excitement about a new material that had been made to be blacker than any known material. The substance used a coating of carbon nanowires (of just 20nm diameter which is about 1/1000 the size of a grain of espresso grind) to absorb light across the visible, ultra-violet and infrared spectrum. And just as nano-structuring a material helps it to appear the ‘blackest’ object ever, so changing the structure of a material can make it invisible to other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum such as microwaves. Quite why various defence companies and governments would invest so much into this research I will leave for your imagination (it is not to avoid heating soup). A more peaceful and beautiful side of the effect of nanostructure on optical properties is the way that the feathers of a peacock have a striking green-blue hue. It is another example of light interacting with a structure and so producing different optical effects; all is not as it appears.

coffee cup Populus

A black coffee in a black coffee cup. But what does black mean? And is something that is transparent always so?

And the fact that all is not as it appears gives another connection to the Populus cup. For although it seemed quite black to my eyes, it was clearly shining in the infra-red. The hot coffee inside was radiating through the cup and onto my hands. Which could prompt us to consider what ‘black’ really means? And for that matter, what about transparent? Just as ‘black’ only absorbs light over a certain set of frequencies, so transparent only lets light through over certain frequencies. The door that we can see through with our eyes may be opaque to a different frequency range that we cannot see. Just over two hundred years ago Carl Wilhelm Scheele deduced the presence of the infrared by contemplating how his stove heated him in the winter. Although he could not see them, the ‘heat rays’ seemed to come straight towards him and yet did not cause a candle flame to flicker, clearly the heat was ‘radiating’ like light rather than travelling like a breeze on the air.

The knowledge that structure, as well as pigment, provides the colour to our world, or that what is transparent at some frequencies may be opaque to others, these things give us plenty to think about, scientifically and perhaps more philosophically, while enjoying our black coffee. Which shows that even ten minutes spent sitting with your coffee can result in a series of thought connections that you may not have enjoyed had you rushed from appointment to appointment while checking your smartphone. That we could all enjoy a good ten minutes (or more) in the Populus Cafe!

The Populus Cafe is at 146 Neil Road, Singapore 088875

Joe’s espresso cafe bar, Victoria

radiant heat, heat loss, heat conduction, infra red, Joe's espresso cafe bar

The slightly ajar door at Joe’s espresso cafe

A few weeks ago I happened to be near Joe’s espresso café bar on the corner of Medway St. and Horseferry Road, with around twenty minutes to spare. Joe’s is an old-style independent café, very focused on their lunch menu and take away coffees. Nonetheless, there is a decent sized seating area in a room adjacent to the ‘bar’ where you can sit with your coffee and watch the world go by on Horseferry Road. It is always nice to come across a friendly café that allows you to sit quietly and people-watch. As I sat and watched the taxis pass by, I became aware of the fact that it had got quite cold. The people who had just left the cafe had left the door to the room slightly open; the cold was ‘getting in‘. Now I know, heat goes out, cold does not come in but sitting there in that café that is not how it felt. Then it struck me, rather than cause me to grumble, the slightly open door should remind me  of the experiments of Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742-1786).

Scheele was a brilliant chemist but one who performed experiments that would make our university health and safety departments jump up and down spitting blood. Recognised for discovering oxygen in the air (Priestley discovered it a few years later but published first), manganese and chlorine, Scheele also investigated arsenic and cyanide based compounds. It is thought that some of these experiments (he described the taste of cyanide) contributed to his early death in May 1786 at the age of 43. Fortunately, none of this has a connection to Joe’s espresso café. What links Scheele with Joe’s, is Scheele’s discovery of ‘radiant heat’ as he was sitting in front of his stove one day.

Open fire, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, Radiant heat, infra red, convection

Sitting in front of a fire we can observe several different ways that heat moves.

Scheele’s house was presumably very cold in winter. He describes how he could sit in front of his stove with the door slightly ajar and feel its heat directly and yet, as he exhaled, the water vapour in his breath condensed into a cloud in the air. The heat from the stove was evidently heating Scheele, but not the air between Scheele and the stove. He additionally noted that this heat travelled in straight lines, horizontally towards him, as if it were light and without producing the refraction of visible light associated with air movement above a hot stove. Nor was a candle flame, placed between Scheele and the stove, affected by the passage of the heat. Clearly this ‘horizontal’ heat was different from the convective heat above the stove. Scheele called this ‘horizontal form’ of heat, ‘radiant heat’.

A few years later, the astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, William Herschel (1738-1822) was investigating glass-filter materials so that he could better observe the Sun. Using a prism to separate white light into its familiar rainbow spectrum, Herschel measured the temperature of the various parts of the spectrum. Surprisingly, the temperature recorded by the thermometer increased as the thermometer was moved from the violet end to the red end of the spectrum and then kept on rising into the invisible region next to the red. We now recognise Herschel’s observation of infra-red light as responsible for the radiant heat seen by Scheele, though a few more experiments were required at the time before this was confirmed.

sunlight induced chemical reactions, milk

Often milk is now supplied in semi-opaque bottles. Why do you think this is?

Further work by William Hyde Wollaston (1766-1828) and, independently Ritter (1776-1810) & Beckmann not only confirmed Herschel’s infra-red/radiant heat observations but also showed that, at the other end of the spectrum was another invisible ‘light’ that produced chemical reactions. Indeed, milk is often sold in semi-opaque plastic containers because of the fact that the taste and nutritional content of the milk are affected by such sunlight induced chemical reactions.

So, it seems to me that, in addition to an interesting story with which to idle away 20 minutes in a café, this set of thoughts offers a variety of experiments that we could try at home. If we are out, we could try to discern the different ways that heat is transferred from one body to another (as Scheele). If we had a prism, we could perhaps repeat Herschel’s experiment very easily with a cheap (but sensitive) thermocouple and, if we were really ambitious hook it up to a Raspberry Pi so that we could map the temperature as a function of wavelength. Finally, we could investigate how light affects chemical reactions by seeing how milk degrades when stored in the dark, direct sunlight or under different wavelengths. If you do any of these experiments please let me know what you discover in the comments section below. In the meanwhile, take time to enjoy your coffee, perhaps noticing how the hot mug is warming your hands.

Books that you may like to read and that were helpful for this piece:

“From Watt to Clausius”, DSL Cardwell, Heinemann Education Books Ltd, 1971

“On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen” H McGee, Unwin Hyman Ltd 1986

Apologies to university H&S departments, you guys do a great job (mostly!) in trying to help to prevent us dying from our own experiments too prematurely.