An opportunity to become a cafe-scientist

coffee, Timberyard, wooden tray

A great place to sit and do some citizen science: Timberyard, Seven Dials has plenty of seats outside.

There are many things to be gained from putting down your smart phone when you enter a café. Firstly, there is the opportunity to fully experience the coffee. The sounds as it is made, the smell, the taste, even the feel of the coffee. Then there is the opportunity for people watching; their behaviour as they order their coffees or have their meetings or try to alleviate boredom while playing with their smartphones. Of course, there is also the opportunity to look at the history of the café and its surroundings, to think about a café-physics review or just slow down and notice things. There’s always something interesting going on.

If you are lucky enough though to be in Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Milan or Rome there is now even more reason to put down that phone while you savour your coffee. By doing so, you could be helping scientists with a few questions that they have about atmospheric pollutants. If you are not in one of those cities, you miss out this time, but you may want to keep reading because if enough people get involved now, perhaps next time the iSPEX-EU project may come near you.

contrail, sunset

What sort of aerosols and pollutants are floating in the atmosphere above your head at this moment?

The question is, what are the atmospheric pollutants that are in the air near where you are now? Perhaps you are in a café on a main road and the answer seems obvious, it is those cars and buses that keep passing by. But there are in fact many forms of atmospheric aerosols or particles and they range in size from a few nanometers to tens of microns (which, in terms of coffee grind is from much smaller than the smallest Turkish coffee to approximately the size of a small particle in an espresso grind). Is it really so clear that where you are, in the centre of that big city, is that polluted? If on the other hand you are on the coast in Barcelona, just how salty is that salty sea air? The iSPEX-EU project allows you to measure it and find out.

These particles of dust, salt and soot etc. can have  an effect on human and animal health, so clearly we want to know more about their distribution and their prevalence. But there are also, more subtle reasons why we may want to know about them. They may have an effect on global warming and they are certainly needed in order for clouds to form, (though as yet we still do not fully understand this process). We need more data about what aerosols are around and where they are to start to know what questions to ask (let alone answer) about health, the climate and cloud formation. Yes, we have satellite measurements and pollution data at specific locations, but what people are missing is that local information. What are you actually breathing? When you look up at the blue sky, what pollutants (or other type of aerosol) are you looking through? Can we get enough data to know how the air quality varies between the cafés of Hackney and those of Hammersmith?

Skylark Wandsworth

Another ideal cafe for iSPEX-EU measurements, great coffee and a lovely outdoor seating area at Skylark cafe, Wandsworth Common

To get this data the scientists involved in iSPEX-EU need people, many people. People who are willing to spend 5 minutes turning their iPhone (sadly it is an iPhone-only project) into a pollution detector. The more people that they can get measuring, the more data that they will be able to obtain. All you need is an app from the App-store and a (free) device that fits over your iPhone camera which you can pick up from somewhere local to you. Then, you just take a seat outside the café on a lovely blue sky day between now and the 15th October, aim your phone at the sky and take a series of photographs which are shared back with the scientists coordinating the project. If you are curious to know how your air quality compares with that in another participating city, you can check the live map to see how the measurements are going across Europe.

The device works by looking at the colour spectrum as well as the polarisation of the light reaching the camera as a function of angle. This information gives tell-tale clues as to the size of the aerosols as well as their prevalence. There is a lot more information on the website of the iSPEX-EU project and so I would recommend that if you do want to know more, you click their link here. In the meantime, why not sign up with iSPEX-EU, take a seat outside in that café and enjoy a great coffee knowing that, as you do so, you are contributing to our understanding of atmospheric science.

If you do decide to participate, please let me know of any great locations that you find, both for the coffee and the measurements, or share your pollution measurements with me in the comments section. I look forward to seeing some great data on the live map.

To get involved with the iSPEX project, you can follow the link here.


Getting some perspective at Skylark, Wandsworth

Skylark Wandsworth

A sunny day at the Skylark on Wandsworth Common

It is late spring in the northern hemisphere and when the weather is fine, what better way to spend it than with a coffee in the middle of Wandsworth Common at the Skylark Cafe? With a number of tables outside and, if the weather turns bad, several more tables inside, Skylark is a lovely place to spend some time while wandering in West London. On the day that we were there, Skylark was frequented by a large number of families however, it was a Saturday afternoon and so it is quite possible that on a week-day it will be a bit quieter. The coffee is roasted by Caravan and they have an interesting array of cakes inside, but it was the plants on the tables outside that caught my attention. Each table had a pot of thyme on it, but the thyme smelled of lemon. Perhaps it was lemon thyme, but something that looks like one thing and smells of another is a nice introduction to this week’s Daily Grind which is all about appearances, reality and perspective.

The thyme was growing in a metal flower pot which reflected the wooden table top. From the photo (below, left), it is clear that the pot is cylindrical but if we stop and think about it, how do we actually know that? The image is two dimensional, no third dimension is possible through a computer screen. What clues in the picture tell you that the pot is cylindrical? The bending of the lines of the table top? This is a pattern that we have learned, we have found from experience that something that is circular will bend straight lines in this way.

perspective, flower pot

What shape is the flower pot?

How we see things and what we think we are seeing was a subject that bothered George Berkeley (1685-1753). How can you know that anything external to yourself is real? Everything you touch, everything you see, hear, taste or smell is, ultimately, a response in your brain to a stimulus. It is not easy to prove that anything ‘outside oneself’ really exists. Indeed, Berkeley argued for the theory that what was ‘real’ was only the sensations in your mind. The theory was famously challenged by Dr Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) who used to drink coffee at the Turks Head in Gerrard St. in what is now Chinatown. Johnson hurt himself by kicking a stone, while saying of Berkeley’s theory: “I refute it thus“. Does Johnson’s sore foot really refute the theory though? How can we avoid Berkeley and find our world again?

Writing about science at the turn of the twentieth century, Pierre Duhem (1861-1916) argued that “All the time we view scientific theory as an attempt at an explanation, we will be limited in what we consider an acceptable explanation by our metaphysical beliefs. Only by accepting that theory is in fact a description, a cataloguing, do we free ourselves from all but the primary metaphysical belief that the world exists“. In other words, in order to ‘do’ science we have to rely on (at least) two beliefs a) that the world outside exists, b) it is consistent, that is, governed by laws that are knowable. Neither of these premises can be ‘scientifically’ proven, instead they lie at the base of our belief system, even if we do tend to take them for granted. It is far easier after all to live in the world, if we assume that it exists.

Americano, Caravan coffee, Skylark, Wandsworth

Coffee at the Skylark

None of this should stop us doing science. Whatever we are investigating with our experimental (or theoretical) tools it is beautiful and the more that we understand the mathematics that describe the world, the more beautiful the world outside becomes. I cannot prove, scientifically, that the world outside exists, I could possibly argue that it does based on philosophical ideas but I will never be able to prove it. I understand that the pot on the table at Skylark is a three dimensional cylinder because of the way that the light is  bent on reflection and from my, admittedly intuitive, understanding of perspective. Perhaps we also need some perspective in appreciating what we can, and cannot, prove with science.


Skylark Cafe is on Wandsworth Common.

Quote taken from “The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory”, Pierre Duhem, 1910.