Victoria

Science & Religion at Rag & Bone Coffee, Westminster

Rag&Bone, Rag & bone, coffee Victoria, coffee Westminster

Rag & Bone Coffee in front of St Matthew’s Church.

Can a coffee cart provide the time and space for reflection and enjoyment of a coffee just as a sit-down cafe can? In seeking an answer to this question (as well as on a quest to find more great coffee in the Victoria/Westminster area), I turned up at Rag & Bone coffee on Great Peter St. It was quiet when I arrived in the courtyard of St Matthew’s Church, and the barista took time to make me a lovely, fruity and full bodied Americano (with beans roasted by Old Spike Roastery). Obviously, there is no seating around the bar but, the church behind the cart is open everyday and offers a rare quiet spot in Victoria to sit and reflect, should you want to do so, before you buy your coffee of course! Sadly, as this is a cart and not a sit-down cafe, the cups provided are disposable, but there is nothing to stop you taking your keep-cup along in order to enjoy your coffee. Just behind the cart, a crucifix above the door of the church caught my eye. And that got me thinking about something, perhaps slightly tangential to the ordinary cafe-physics reviews of Bean Thinking, why do some people imagine there is a conflict between religion and science?

I could see how there could be a disagreement if a religion took an overly literal interpretation of a text (as can happen with disputes over evolution). Or if someone used science as an argument against ‘belief’ while failing to appreciate that science too is based on belief (albeit beliefs that we are most likely just to assume as facts without questioning: particularly that our world exists and that it can be understood). But outside those extremes, and if we look at the motivations of both religion and science, it is surely that both religion and science aim to discover or value truth. If both sincerely follow that aim there can be no real conflict, for truth cannot contradict itself.

Earth from space, South America, coffee

One planet. One home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Instead the investigations of one can inform the other and help both to advance our understanding of the world. Take for example the urgent issue of climate change. Scientists, using science as a tool, can investigate and highlight areas of concern for our planet (increasing CO2 levels, rising sea temperatures, a probable increase in extreme weather events, etc) but strictly speaking, as a tool it can go no further. If a scientist then urges us to do something to mitigate climate change, they are not speaking as a ‘scientist’ but as a human being; a human being who is informed by ethical concerns. It would be perfectly logical for someone to recognise that climate change is happening while holding that there is no obligation on our current generation to do anything about it. We may find such an opinion objectionable but that is the crux of it, we have introduced values to the discussion in the form of ‘right and wrong’ and ‘good’. We have moved beyond the remit of science. Religions have had millennia to consider the human condition and what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘right’. For us to combat climate change we need not just the evidence that it is happening, but an idea of a better, or more ‘just’ world. Ethical systems are of course possible without religion, but discussion informed by religious concern can help to change ‘concern for our planet’ into the concern for and protection of ‘our common home‘.

Artemisworks photography, rosary and keyboard

Prayer beads on a keyboard.

Then there is a link between religion and science that brings us right back to Rag & Bone Coffee and St Matthew’s church yard. When St Matthew’s was built back in 1849, the area surrounding it was squalid, conditions were so bad, the area towards Victoria St. was known as the “Devil’s Acre“. The Dean of Westminster, and the new vicar of St Matthew’s recognised that, to help people out of poverty, drastic steps would need to be taken and one of these was to improve education. The Dean of Westminster died soon after St Matthew’s was built but his wife, Mary Buckland, who was also a palaeontologist, wanted to continue his work with the poor. In order to improve the conditions for those living in the slums in the Westminster area, “Mrs Buckland” established a coffee house on Old Pye St, that was cared for by the Revd. Richard Malone, vicar of St Matthew’s. The coffee house was a place where lectures were given and a library was set up. The church and people in the scientific world, worked together to help the poor of the area positively change their living conditions.

The coffee house eventually had to close but, perhaps it could be said that, in a sense, the presence of Rag & Bone coffee in the courtyard of St Matthew’s, continues this work. Although times have changed, and the area is no longer a slum, there is a different form of poverty, people who are time-poor and harassed, working in the offices that now surround the church. In this sense, Rag & Bone Coffee offers not just refreshment, but a brief time-out from the daily grind for the people who now pass by this space. As making coffee is both an art and a science, perhaps we can also say that here too, science and religion work together, with coffee, to make the world a better place.

Rag & Bone Coffee can be found in the courtyard of St Matthew’s Church, Great Peter St. SW1P 2BU.

 

In the Greenhouse at CoffeeGeek

Coffee Geek and Friends, Coffee Victoria

Coffee Geek and Friends

Earlier this year, a new café opened up in Victoria. Coffee Geek and Friends is located at the far end of Cardinal Place as you enter from Victoria Street. Cardinal Place is an odd sort of shopping centre, a small collection of shops with a glass roof. The building site near Coffee Geek as well as the constant stream of people rushing to and fro make Coffee Geek an ideal place to spend some time watching the world go by. Coffee is by Allpress espresso and is served in very individual mugs. Apparently there is a range of geek-ery in the cafe including a ‘centre piece’ water filter but I admit I missed that as I was too focussed on my coffee. Coffee Geek and Friends is definitely a cafe to keep in mind (along with Irish & June’s) if you need a good place to meet near Victoria Station.

It was a very humid day when I enjoyed my coffee at Coffee Geek and, because the mug had not been pre-warmed before my Americano/long black (my notes don’t specify which) was poured into it, condensation quickly formed around the rim of the mug. The condensation forms for the same reason that dew forms after a cool night: the vapour pressure of the water above the coffee (or the ground) has reached the dew point at the temperature of the mug. The lower the temperature, the lower the vapour pressure has to be for the water in the atmosphere to start condensing into liquid droplets. Hence you will often find that your coffee is more ‘steamy’ on a winter’s, rather than a summer’s day.

Condensation on mug in CGaF

Look carefully at the rim of the mug. Do you see the condensation?

Just over two hundred years ago, William Charles Wells made a study of dew. He observed the weather conditions under which dew formed. He observed on which surfaces dew collected. He noted whether the dew formed on space facing surfaces or ground facing surfaces. After several years of careful study he published his “Essay on Dew” in 1814. His work, showed that the earth radiated heat at night (when it was not being kept warm by the Sun) and therefore that space was cold. Cloud cover reduced the amount by which the ground cooled which implied that cloud cover was acting as a type of blanket for the Earth, keeping the heat trapped inside. Later calculations of the balance between the heat radiated by the Earth and the heat received by the Sun confirmed that, without some heat getting trapped by clouds and ‘greenhouse’ gases in the atmosphere, the earth would be a good 30 C cooler than it is observed to be. Although these calculations are just rough, “back of the envelope” figures, detailed calculations confirm that the Earth is in a delicate balance, heated by the Sun, cooled by radiation and kept warm (and live-able) by a layer of natural greenhouse gases. This “natural greenhouse effect” has been necessary for our development, the problem is that now we are adding yet more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere which threatens to tip the established delicate balance by a few degrees.

Cardinal Place roof, greenhouse

The roof of Cardinal Place shopping centre. A very appropriate place for a meditation on the greenhouse effect

What we now call the greenhouse effect are these extra gases, which are more efficient at trapping heat within our atmosphere. If you can imagine what has been happening over the past three hundred years or so as we have been pumping yet more of these gases into the atmosphere at an accelerated rate, we are in danger of tipping this delicate balance towards further heating of the earth. The 2015 Paris Climate Conference is being held with the aim of requiring all nations to agree to a legally binding commitment to reduce the amount of extra greenhouse gases that we emit to a level that will only result in a temperature increase of 2C. To achieve this requires all of us to work together to reduce our own ‘carbon footprint’. Each of us will have to find our own, individual ways to reduce our emissions but perhaps when we look at the condensation on the rim of our coffee cup, we could remember William Charles Wells and his essay on dew and just think, what can I do, at this moment, to reduce my carbon footprint? Maybe it could be something as simple as turning off that phone (to conserve the battery) and watching what is going on in a café instead. A small gesture but one that would be good for us as well as the earth.

Coffee Geek and Friends is at the northern end of Cardinal Place shopping centre (opposite Westminster Cathedral).

As a Coffee Geek note, I would like to just comment that my notes on Coffee Geek and Friends were written using a “linux-sure” ball point pen. Not particularly environmentally friendly but definitely quite geeky.

Sugar castles at Iris and June, Victoria

Iris and June, Victoria, coffee in Victoria

The exterior of Iris and June

This post has been a long time coming. Over the past few months I’ve been popping into Iris&June to get take away coffee now and then and have got quite fond of the friendly service and good coffee. What I have not really had the opportunity to do (until recently) was sit and enjoy a coffee inside. Fortunately that’s now changed and I can add Iris&June to the Daily Grind.

So, how is I+J? Well, it is a 5 minute walk from Victoria train station and a welcome break for good coffee. They serve Ozone based espresso, with a brew bar which features guest roasts (also from Ozone) made with the V60 or Aeropress. There are a good looking selection of cakes on offer, though sadly, on the day that I could sit inside with my drink, they all had nuts in them. Hopefully another time.

Sugar jar, I&J, I+J

A jar of sugar at Iris and June

I took a seat on the cushioned bench near the wall and started to look at what was going on. It is the sort of place that is very good for people watching. My eye though was drawn to what was on my table: a jar of sugar. It is not that I take sugar in my coffee, it is that I was reminded of a tutorial I once had as a student. I cannot remember the exact conversation but it concerned piles of sand. My tutor (a theoretical physicist) had said something along the lines “Ah yes, well, of course, everyone knew the maximum angle that a pile of sand could make before it became unstable and then how it started to collapse…. Until of course someone measured it.” [laughed] “We’d got it entirely wrong.”

This ability to laugh at what we do not know, (or what we assume we do know and then measure it and find out that in fact we do not)  is one of the pleasures of physics. We are trying to understand the world we live in, we have not yet got there. Sometimes it is the smallest things that are not yet understood, such as how and why (dry) sand forms avalanches as it is piled up. Yet these small things can turn out to have big consequences (as was also the case for the understanding of coffee stains). In this case, the experiment had tested the way that a pile of sand collapsed in response to different shaped grains of ‘sand’. It had relevance then (and continues to have relevance now) not only in terms of granular dynamics: how do we predict landslides/avalanches? But also in terms of crucial theoretical models about how these processes behave. Theoretical models that are applied to systems as diverse as knowing how electrical devices (resistors) work to understanding the noise on the luminosity of stars. Realising that we were wrong enabled us to probe the question more deeply and thereby to understand it more.

There are similarities between sugar and sand, but also key differences. Although it was tempting to start building sugar castles in the sugar jars on the tables at Iris and June, I was aware of the impression that I may have made to those who go to I+J to people watch (see above). I will therefore leave it as a home experiment. How steep a sugar castle do you think you can make? And how steep can you in fact make it, what is the role of water in building sand castles?

Please leave any reports of experimental results for how steep you can make a pile of sugar in the comments section below and feel free to send me your sugar-castle pictures.

Iris and June is at No 1 Howick Place, SW1P 1WG

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.