slow down

Coffee prints at Water Lane Brasserie, Canterbury

coffee in a friendly environment Canterbury

Drinks at Water Lane Brasserie, Canterbury

Making our way down the cobbled High St in Canterbury, into a side street within the old walled town and then following the black board signs for coffee, we found our way to Water Lane Brasserie on Water Lane. Although it is very close to the High St and even the bus station, somehow Water Lane Coffee feels quite hidden. We had decided to try Water Lane for a spot of lunch as we had read good things about the food and coffee. A friendly dog welcomed us into the café where a few groups of people were chatting or working on their laptops.

Various, slightly out of place, ornaments were dotted around the fairly large space. There was the Newton’s cradle in the window, the Fly agaric mushrooms near the sofa seats, the hand grinder and syphon brewer near the counter and, of course, the jenga sets on some of the tables. As various customers came and left, the friendly service suggested that this was a café in which relationships are built along with jenga towers. Corny analogies aside, it may have been tempting to focus a café-physics review on such pieces dotted around. However, it always seems that the more that you contemplate a place, the more rewarding the observations become (to yourself at least, whether they become more interesting to others is quite another matter).

mushrooms at water lane

A Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushroom near the sofas. Learning about how to identify mushrooms is excellent training in noticing.

Our soup, which was indeed a lovely way to enjoy a light lunch meant that we had quite some time to look around the café. Just outside the window, a bird feeding area with hanging bird feeders had somehow attracted an ingenious moorhen that was cleverly balancing on a conveniently placed pole while grabbing food perhaps intended for smaller birds. Inside, punting equipment lined the walls as it seems that you can punt in Canterbury’s river now when it is warmer (is this a new thing? I cannot remember this from years ago when I used to be in Canterbury more regularly). On a shelf above the counter there were several beers with the logo “Canterbury Ales”.

By this time we were enjoying our coffee (long black) and soy hot chocolate. These were a great finish to the soup. Although there was no information about the roaster, the coffee was very drinkable, darker rather than fruity. As we moved the soup away, the indentations on the top of the (old card table) table became more obvious. Rather like footprints in the sand or fossils in London’s Portland stone. Evidence on a table top of coffee-drinkers-past. Could we gain much information from the imprints left on the table top? Firstly, this table has not just been used for playing cards, a fair few plates of food have been placed on it. Secondly, some very heavy small objects, given the shape of the footprint, perhaps vases, have also been put on the table in the past, was this used decoratively? It is difficult to know with any certainty what happened on this table but with a bit of extra information, such fossil footprints can be full of information.

coffee prints at Water Lane

The table top at Water Lane. What can you discern from the indentations that have been left?

When thinking about fossil footprints, as with the table, the first bit of information that can be gleaned from the fossil is the size of the animal (or object) that made them. So even in the absence of a skeleton fossil, it would be known that some dinosaurs were enormous. Last year a set of dinosaur footprints were discovered in Australia that were 1.7m large, a single foot larger than many humans are tall. Then there is the information that can be ascertained from multiple footprints, such as the idea that perhaps dinosaurs hunted in packs or at least, that some dinosaurs such as the Tyrannosaurus Rex moved in small groups, presumably for hunting. Elsewhere, the presence of different types of dinosaur footprints that seemed to move in different patterns suggested a hunt that occurred millions of years ago.

Tristan Gooley in “The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs” suggests using more recent footprints to see the wildlife stories that have recently unfolded around you when you walk in the country*. He writes:

“Tracking is built upon these simple, logical principles. All four-legged animals lift and replace their feet in a set order and rhythm and this reflects their evolutionary heritage….. It will not be long before you come across two sets of tracks that are clearly related in some way. The two types of tracks, their character, the spaces between them, the habitat, the time of year and a host of other circumstantial evidence will reveal whether an animal was hunting another, scaring it off, playing with it or trying to mate with it. Here, following the track means reading the story.”

Returning from our day dreams and to the table at Water Lane, looking out the window it became apparent that a figure was staring back at us. Standing just on the other side of the river Stour, a short, stout, statue of a monk looked out from under the hedge around the church beyond the river. The old Greyfriars chapel dates from the thirteenth century, the home of the (then recently formed) Franciscans, named after St Francis of Assisi. Details of the history of this place are revealed in old graffiti around the venue. The monk on the river seemed to silently acknowledge the place’s history as the water ran by. What clues as to previous visitors are there in this friendly, quiet and contemplative café on the river Stour? What will be our imprint on the world when we leave it, as individuals, as a society?

Water Lane Brasserie is in Water Lane, Canterbury.

“The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs” by Tristan Gooley, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

*Not just the country. In many urban parks you can see the recent behaviour of geese, sea gulls and the dogs that chase them, or walking down a pavement tracking a dog that has just walked through a puddle. Hearing a story from the clues left behind needn’t just be a game left to country walkers and fossil hunters.

 

Data overload at The Gentlemen Baristas

coffee Borough

The Gentlemen Baristas in Borough.

Borough is always such a great place to wander. Walking around the backstreets with their bits of hidden history. The other day, we had visited the market, wandered down Redcross Way past the old Crossbones graveyard and hit upon The Gentlemen Baristas on Union Street. It is difficult not to have heard about these Gentlemen and my visit there was long overdue and so, we wandered in to try this famous venue.

The shop front advertised itself as a “Coffee House”. A very accurate description and a nod to the Coffee Houses of the past. As it was shortly after lunchtime, it was very crowded with a diverse bunch of people and felt a little cramped at the counter. Nonetheless, the queue was quick and friendly baristas soon took our order allowing us to retire inside to try to find a table (no chance) or a stool next to a bar (successful). Around us, people were either chatting over their coffees or working on laptops.

While waiting for my long black (intriguingly described on their website as a “well mannered coffee”), I noted the various posters describing different types of screw head or parts of the human skeleton. Enough detail to be a phone distraction but surely there was more physics waiting to be seen in this convivial back room of a coffee house? A blackboard at the end of the bar, offered details of the wifi as well as a quote (slightly adapted) from PG Wodehouse about the benefits to friendship of a shared taste in coffee. On a shelf opposite the blackboard were a number of books including a thick book detailing coffee trading in years gone by. From the fact that the books were stacked horizontally, it would appear that they are not consulted often.

shelf books hats Borough

The lighting made photography difficult but you can see the books (and the hats) on this shelf at The Gentlemen Baristas

Sitting between this juxtaposition of wifi information and old books, caused me to pause. I have heard it said that we “know” more now than we have ever known in the past. That we have access to an enormous amount of knowledge merely through our phones. Is this correct?

On one level it is certainly un-arguable. Ninety percent of the world’s data in 2013 had been generated in the previous two years. If you need to find anything out, a quick duckduckgo (or if you have to, a google) will often lead to websites detailing all sorts of quirky bits of information. If we want to know the radius of the Earth or the size of an espresso grind, we no longer have to remember the answer, nor even really to have a feel for the answer, instead we can almost immediately find webpages that tell us (here and here).

And yet, this answer seems unsatisfactory. While there is an awful lot of information available to us at the tap of a phone, it is questionable whether that information translates to our own knowledge. Although collectively we can understand amazing things such as gravitational waves, individually we may struggle to explain how a toilet works. We need the plumber’s knowledge as much as we need that of the cosmologists. Does it matter who knows? What level of knowledge does someone need to have to say that they ‘know’ something?

coffee long black gentlemen baristas

Taking time to stop and think about what it’s all about. My coffee at The Gentlemen Baristas

Perhaps this appears a very strange cafe-physics review, where is the physics? But part of the rationale behind Bean Thinking is also to slow down and contemplate and it seems that The Gentlemen Baristas offers the perfect environment in which to do so. A café that mixes the new with the old, a space in which the practices of one can inform the other.

So to return the thought train to the area local to the Gentlemen: Writing in the second century AD, the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote

In death, Alexander of Macedon’s end differed no whit from his stable-boy’s. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.

It is a quote you will probably find very easily via a search engine, or slightly less easily if you read his “Meditations”. But it is perhaps worth pondering, in what sense we ‘know’ what he was meaning. Strolling past the ribbons and messages memorialising the (estimated) 15,000 people who lay buried in the ‘outcast’ graveyard of Crossbones, what about our own attitudes to our modern outcasts? And perhaps more tellingly, our attitudes to those in positions of power or influence?

Perhaps it will take a lifetime of understanding our personal reactions to the poor, the prostitutes, the homeless and the powerful to really know what Aurelius meant. It certainly requires of us that we stop, pause and reflect on the knowledge that we come by. So it is far from obvious that it benefits us to use the wifi password rather than sit, slow down and contemplate. And where better to do so than in a friendly café with good coffee and seats to ponder the moment?

The Gentlemen Baristas can be found at 63 Union St, SE1 1SG

 

 

A need for religion at Continental Stores, Russell Square

exterior of Continental Stores

Ghosts of shops past! Continental Stores on Tavistock Place

Many years ago Tavistock Place, now home to Continental Stores, was on my cycle route home. I can no longer remember whether the sign “Continental Stores” was visible then or whether it had a second sign over it. However, the faded red backdrop, the vintage font and the whole feel of the frontage does make “Continental Stores” (the café) stand out a bit from the crowd. Continental Stores is run by the same people who run Store St Espresso on Store St. but much of the original decoration of the café has been kept from the old shop that previously occupied this space. And although this ‘new’ branch is now more than three years old, for various reasons I’ve never quite got to visit until a couple of weeks ago.

We arrived fairly late, just half an hour before closing, and managed to get a long black before the espresso machine (which was apparently having a bad day) finally packed up. Although filter coffee was available, this is not the case when you arrive so close to closing. The coffee was however very drinkable and the window seat provided a great place to watch people pass by. Bubbles formed around the edge of the coffee, reflecting the light streaming through the window in this airy café. White mists skitted over the surface of the drink. There was plenty to consider in the café too, from the oil paintings on the wall to the subtle green colour of the glass separating the interior of the café from the bar area (for more on glass colours click here). A large amount of science in a cosy place. However today’s train of thought took a somewhat different direction. That day, sitting in the café, prompted a thought train to develop in a more introspective direction: what does climate change denial have to do with personal integrity and the need for a continuing dialogue between science and religion? And what does that have to do with coffee drinkers?

Incredibly, it started with a map.

glass and map interior Continental Stores

So much to contemplate! From glass to the map.

On the wall in the main area of the café, behind the counter, is a map depicting the world. Although there is a photo on this page, there is a far better one in Brian’s Coffee Spot review of Continental Stores which can be found here (scroll through the gallery to find it). Also on the map are two circular depictions of the Polar regions. That fact, that the poles are illustrated separately and that the map is a rectangular impression of our spherical home impressed on me the knowledge that it is extremely difficult to truly represent our globe on a flat piece of paper. All maps are projections and the one at Continental Stores is the familiar cylindrical projection where you imagine a cylinder of paper wrapped around the equator of the Earth and then project the profile of the countries around onto it.

A few years ago a Malaysian-Chinese lady, now in her 70s told me a story about growing up in Malaysia (then Malaya) under British colonial rule. At school it was always impressed upon her how much larger Britain was than Malaysia, you could see it just from looking at the maps (which were always of the cylindrical projection as displayed at Continental Stores). It was only later that she realised the importance of map projections. Although Malaysia, at the equator, was fairly well represented by the cylindrical representation, Britain, being relatively closer to the poles, was stretched and so appeared much larger. Britain is in fact larger than the Western Malaysia peninsular but not to the extent that it appeared from the map. Had the map projection been used as a subtle political tool justifying Britain’s rule over Malaya*?

Similar thoughts occurred to me recently with some of the comments that have followed hurricane Harvey in the US (and the floods in south Asia that have killed more than 1200 people but have sadly been far less reported here in the UK). Was the intensity of the hurricane, and the fact that we are experiencing similarly intense storms more frequently, a consequence of climate change?

message inside Continental Stores

From the table to our planet. A message with resonances.

Although that’s an interesting question, it’s not the one that I would like to consider today. Instead, it’s the response on social media generated by data about the frequency of the hurricanes and their strength. “Why are you only showing weather information for the past X years, if you look back further/look more recently…” etc. It is the same with graphs showing global temperatures as a function of time. People ask “Why are they plotted that way, if we looked back further/zoomed in a bit more….” It seems that there is an accusation behind many of the questions; there is doubt about the integrity of the scientist who circulated the graph. What is at the root of this?

When writing a scientific paper (even on a relatively uncontroversial topic like magnetism), there is frequently a lot of discussion about exactly how to present the data. The graphs need to be clear enough and on a scale that the ‘message’ of the paper is delivered quickly. But equally in a way that does not misrepresent the data. Then, different authors have different ideas on aesthetics. The final graph is a balance between these. So why is there such distrust of similar graphs presented on subjects such as climate change? Are we so used to being sold messages in adverts that we immediately suspect the scientists of an evil motive, trying to persuade us to ‘buy’ an ideology?

Clearly there are occasions on which data is presented in a manner to impress rather than to reveal, as was the case with the map. Though even with the map, there is some ambiguity. Some cylindrical projections can be helpful for navigators as lines of latitude and longitude cross perpendicularly. There are times when such a representation would be useful. So when we generate, share or read such  graphs, we need to ask ourselves questions about our reaction to them. Are we representing the data truthfully? Are we trying to make the data fit into opinions that we already hold? These questions apply equally whether we are creating the graph or if we are seeing it on social media and reacting to it.

black coffee Continental Stores

Bringing it back to the coffee. The bubbles reflect the light from the windows. Taking time to contemplate the drink gives us space to reflect.

These considerations generate questions of their own. What do we think science is? Do we believe in the existence of truth? What is truth anyway? What are my motives in sharing/reading this piece of information; am I trying to understand the world or manipulate it to my advantage?

Which is just one reason (of many) that a respectful dialogue between science and the humanities, between scientists and theologians is desperately needed. Religions and philosophies have been asking questions about the nature of being, questions of truth and motive for millennia. Tools such as the examination of conscience have been developed by religious traditions to allow us to interrogate our own motives and to start to understand our own behaviour. In a week when it was revealed that more than 50% of people in the UK describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ it seems to me that, whether we believe in a religion or not, many of us would benefit from such an examination of conscience before we hit ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘share’. Questioning our motives before creating, sharing or commenting. But such tools require space and the time taken to slow down, perhaps in a café, to deliberate on our own attitudes. Time that is needed to help us to see if it is our behaviour that needs amending before we question the integrity of others.

Such deliberations often don’t have conclusions but instead open up more questions. The fortunate consequence of which is that it becomes imperative that we spend more time contemplating our coffee in quiet, welcoming and thought provoking environments such as that found at Continental Stores.

Continental Stores can be found at 54 Tavistock Place, WC1H 9RG.

*I have kept the name of the country Malaysia as it is now known apart from when referring to the time when Britain had colonised it and called it “Malaya”.

 

Happiness is a cup of coffee

stone recycling, slate, slate waterfall, geology

A cafe with a lovely space to enjoy the coffee. Taking time out at Espresso Base

If you are reading this, you clearly have access to a computer. You are also quite possibly connected through social media to friends, colleagues and others through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or one of the other numerous ways in which we can now connect with each other. And while I would love for you to continue reading, at least for a couple of moments, I would like to ask you how often you take the opportunity to stop?  To stop and turn off your computer or the notifications on your smart phone and just look at what is around you.

This website is really about slowing down and noticing things. Since I believe that science offers a great way of seeing the connectedness of the world around us, I choose to emphasise the science that you can notice around you. It is most likely that you see the world in a different way, sharing some aspects of my point of view, disagreeing with others. However, it seems to me that slowing down and noticing your surroundings, whether you look at the science or another aspect of those surroundings, makes us in some way happier, or at least, generally, more calm. Having a coffee in a café is a great way of doing this. Whether you are interested in the café or the coffee (or indeed both), there is an awful lot to notice and to appreciate in a café. Noticing it of course does depend on keeping the smartphone (tablet or laptop) in your pocket or your bag. Personally, I find it slightly depressing when I see signs in a café saying “free wifi” (though I suspect I am in a minority on that one). And although if we are not used to it, not checking our email while having a coffee can seem to be enforced boredom, I’d hope that we soon realise that such boredom is in fact creative.

Sun-dog, Sun dog

Walking along while texting could mean that you miss seeing a sun dog

Please don’t get me wrong. It is not that I think social media are a bad thing. I have met (either ‘virtually’ or in person) some great and highly interesting people whom I would never have had the opportunity to meet were it not through Twitter/Facebook etc. Each day, I learn something new through the many people whose experience or knowledge I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to ‘tap’. However, just as sometimes it is great to have such interactions, I have found that it is also vital to have times (perhaps even a day a week) when the smartphone is kept firmly in the pocket (or at least, notifications are turned off).

In the UK, we have just got back from a long weekend. Many cafés were closed over the Easter break. Some of the café-Twitterers I follow went on a long break to the countryside (and Tweeted about it), others just turned off their social media for a few days. Elsewhere in the world you perhaps have different long weekends, Chinese New Year or Christmas. Perhaps during these holidays you manage to get a break in the countryside or by the coast. It is here that there is a link between an interesting recent study and a great use of a smartphone.  The study, by researchers at the University of Surrey and the London School of Economics, attempts to measure your ‘happiness’ while you are undertaking different activities in different locations, in urban environments, at work, or bird watching in the country.

Another great coffee outside, this time at Skylark cafe

Another great coffee outside, this time at Skylark cafe

Called the ‘mappiness‘ project, an app downloaded onto your iPhone (it is, sadly, only for iPhones), prompts the user to answer a question about their own perceived level of happiness at random instants. It then records the location of the phone (through GPS) and further asks the user to describe what they are doing. Over 1 million responses have so far been recorded through 20 000 participants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers have so far found that people tend to rate their happiness higher when they are outside, in natural environments and particularly in coastal areas. To me, it opens questions as to whether we should be attempting to quantify happiness or whether we should embrace the discussions of the humanities on this issue (less precise perhaps but by that very fact more complete and therefore more accurate). Perhaps these two approaches are complimentary. Nonetheless, the mappiness project remains an interesting study of a way in which you can use your phone in order to get a measure of where you should use your phone less.

Do get in touch and let me know what you think. Do you find it necessary to have some time out from social media or is Facebook your lifeline? Should cafés offer free wifi? Comments are always welcome (below) or you can get in touch by those two social media sites Twitter or Facebook. I do look forward to interacting with you there.

 

Waiting for a green light at Alchemy, St Pauls

8 Ludgate Broadway, St Pauls

Alchemy Coffee

Alchemy, “a seemingly magical process of transformation, creation or combination”, is certainly a cafe that lives up to the dictionary definition of its name. The branch, on Ludgate Broadway near St Pauls, is the outlet that ‘showcases’ the coffee of Alchemy Roasters. On walking into this cafe, I was presented with a menu of two types of beans for espresso based drinks or two different beans for filter/aeropress. Both sets of coffees came with tasting notes. After a brief chat with the friendly barista I went for the San Sebastian with aeropress. Notes about the origins of the coffee are dotted around this superbly sited cafe (its location is ideal for people watching). The coffee is directly traded (where possible) and, if lattes or cappuccinos are your thing, there are also details about the farm that produces the milk.

Although there were cakes on the counter, I had just had lunch and so had to pass on what looked to be a good selection of edibles. The coffee though was certainly very good and definitely an experience to be savoured. As, perhaps I should have expected, when the coffee arrived it came in a beaker reminiscent of chemistry laboratories. From my chair in the corner, I could watch the preparation of the coffee behind the counter, the people coming into the shop to order their coffee and the crowds passing by outside.

E=mc2 Einstein relativity in a cafe

Scales at Alchemy. Weights on one side, chocolate on the other, it can only mean one thing: energy-mass equivalence

Close to where I was sitting was an old style set of measuring scales. This see-saw balance had weights on one side and chocolate on the other. Perhaps this connection seems tenuous, but for me weights on one side of the scales and an energy bar (chocolate) on the other side could only mean one thing:

E=mc²

The equation relating energy and mass for a particle at rest derived, and made famous by Einstein. The equation comes from Einstein’s theory of special relativity which states that nothing can be accelerated to faster than the speed of light (in a vacuum). First set down in 1905, the theory has some very odd predictions, among which the best known is probably the twin paradox (details here). The idea is that a moving clock will be observed to run slowly by a stationary observer, a prediction that has been confirmed several times by experiments using atomic clocks (here).

San Sebastian via Aeropress

Coffee is served at Alchemy

Moreover, the equation states that mass and energy are equivalent and that a small amount of mass can produce an awful lot of energy, (details here). A detail which will bring this story of a cafe-physics review nicely back to the Alchemy cafe, to London and to the importance of slowing down. The connection is through a set of traffic lights in Bloomsbury. Back in 1933, Leo Szilard was waiting to cross the road at the traffic lights at the intersection of Russell Square with Southampton Row. Szilard had recently escaped from Nazi Germany and was spending his time as a refugee in London pondering different aspects of physics†. That September day, Szilard was thinking about a newspaper article featuring Ernest Rutherford that he had read earlier. In 1901  Ernest Rutherford, together with Frederick Soddy, had discovered that radioactive thorium decayed into radium. The changing of one element into another could be considered a type of modern day alchemy. However Rutherford did not believe that there could ever be a way of harnessing this nuclear energy. In the article read by Szilard in The Times, Rutherford had dismissed any such ideas as “moonshine”. Szilard was forced to pause his walk as he waited for the traffic lights to change. Those few moments of pause must have helped clear Szilard’s mind because as the light went green and Szilard was able to cross the road, a thought hit him: If every neutron hitting an element released two neutrons (as one element was transmuted into another), a chain reaction could be started. As part of the mass of the decaying atom was released as energy, it would mean that, feasibly, we could harness vast amounts of energy; E=mc².

This idea, a consequence of spending five minutes waiting for a traffic light rather than checking Twitter (not yet invented in 1933), proved to underpin both the nuclear fission which we use in electricity generation and the nuclear fission that we’ve used to develop weaponry. It makes me wonder what alchemy we could conjure in our minds if we stopped to enjoy the transformations of the coffee beans at Alchemy.

 

Alchemy (cafe) is at 8 Ludgate Broadway, EC4V 6DU

† A book that some may find entertaining is:

“Hitler’s Scientists”, John Cornwell, Penguin Group publishers, 2003. The book contains this anecdote about Szilard: As Szilard was of Hungarian-Jewish descent, he fled Germany to Britain via Austria on a train a few days after the Reichstag fire of 1933. On the day he left, the train was empty. One day later, the same train was overcrowded and the people leaving Germany were stopped at the border and interrogated.  An event that prompted him, a few years later, to reflect “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people.” Something to reflect on in today’s refugee crisis perhaps.