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

Tea Gazing

Milky Way, stars, astrophotography

The Milky Way as viewed from Nebraska. Image © Howard Edin (

A recent opinion piece about last week’s announcement of the detection of gravitational waves at LIGO drew my attention to a quote from Einstein:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

Einstein was not the only scientist to have expressed such sentiments. Many scientists have considered a sense of wonder to be integral to their practice of science. For many this has involved gazing at the heavens on a clear night and contemplating the vastness, and the beauty, of the universe. Contemplating the twinkling stars suggests the universe outside our Solar System. Watching as the stars twinkle gives us clues as to our own planet’s atmosphere. Of course, it is not just scientists who have expressed such thoughts. Immanuel Kant wrote:

“Two things fill the mind with ever-increasing wonder and awe, the more often and the more intensely the mind of thought is drawn to them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.“*

light patterns on the bottom of a tea cup

Dancing threads of light at the bottom of the tea cup.

The other evening I prepared a lovely, delicate, loose leaf jasmine tea in a teapot. I then, perhaps carelessly, perhaps fortuitously, poured the hot tea into a cold tea cup. Immediately threads of light danced across the bottom of the cup. The kitchen lights above the tea cup were refracted through hot and not-quite-so-hot regions of the tea before being reflected from the bottom of the cup. The refractive index of water changes as a function of the water’s temperature and so the light gets bent by varying amounts depending on the temperature of the tea that it travels through. Effectively the hotter and cooler regions of the tea act as a collection of many different lenses to the light travelling through the tea. These lenses produce the dancing threads of light at the bottom of the cup. The contact between the hot tea and the cold cup amplified the convection currents in the tea cup and so made these threads of light particularly visible, and particularly active, that evening. It is a very similar effect that causes the twinkling of the stars. Rather than hot tea, the light from the distant stars is refracted by the turbulent atmosphere, travelling through moving pockets of relatively warm air and relative cool air. The star light dances just a little, with the turbulence of the atmosphere, this way and that on its way to our eyes.

Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.Ҡ

Marcus Aurelius of course didn’t have tea. Watch the dancing lights in the tea cup and see yourself sitting with it, resting a while and then watching while dwelling on the beauty in your cup.

*Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason

†Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The importance of going slow

journals in a library

How can we assess the work of scientists? Should we count the number of papers that they write?

In the past few weeks there has been a bit of a media storm about the state of science. A paper that had been published in the journal Science, was retracted because it turned out that the study had, quite possibly, been faked. The retraction highlighted the problem of “publish or perish” which has been a concern for many scientists of late. A second article, this time an editorial in Nature, took a different and perhaps surprising perspective on things. Apparently the public trust scientists much more than scientists think that they do. Why would that be the case?

These two stories should concern us because they lie at the heart of a current problem in science. According to the dictionary, ‘science’ is “systematic and formulated knowledge”. Such knowledge takes time to develop, it takes us time to understand what goes on, both on an individual level and as a society. The ‘publish or perish’ culture acts in opposition to this. Within a ‘publish or perish’ culture, the way that science works is that the more papers that you have, especially those that get cited and are published in (apparently) good journals, the more successful you will be in your career and in your ability to get research funding. It is essential to publish “high impact” papers in order merely to survive in science. In more extreme cases this has led to data being faked and subsequent retractions of the papers (if it is ever discovered). Active faking of data though is only the tip of the iceberg. The pressure to publish high profile papers quickly, can lead to the original paper not having been investigated thoroughly enough. In fact, there are even motivations to publish too quickly. Firstly, if you are wrong, you just publish a second paper a few months later. Two papers, two sets of citations. Secondly, publishing early means getting there first, ie. more citations. It has got to the point where it is advantageous to quickly publish poor quality research with hyped key words than it is to do a thorough job and perhaps be beaten to the publication by a more incomplete work. This cannot be good for science or our society and it suggests that, in order to have a scientific career you must, to a greater or lesser extent, cease to behave scientifically. It is perhaps for this reason that scientists themselves have a doubt as to why the public would trust them, they no longer trust themselves.

lilies on water

Is there symbolism here? There’s certainly a lot of physics.

The ‘publish or perish’ culture has come about partly as a consequence of needing a metric by which to judge the worth of research. In itself this is understandable but it does suggest that we are no longer confident of our ability, as a society, to measure the ‘good’ of something. To judge something as ‘good for society’ necessarily involves many different inputs from many disciplines. Assessing something as good is a value judgement. To redefine ‘good’ purely into something that we measure (by profit, or by number of papers) is to artificially reduce what is good for society to an arbitrary, but on appearance scientific, method. Rather than admit that questions over what is ‘good science’ are, essentially, value judgements, we try to give a false ‘scientific’ measure of their worth, one based on citations and publications. We still have our biases but we have become less conscious of them and instead try to hide them with a false scientism.

How could we change this, how else can we assess who is a ‘good’ scientist or what research will benefit society? This is, I think where it is important for everyone to get involved and to slow down. It is open for everyone to investigate, for themselves, what they think would make a ‘good’ society. Clearly the quest for knowledge, and in particular scientific knowledge, will form part of that good but for us, as a society to realise what is good we need to stop and think about it. There is a need to encourage clear methods of thinking but at the same time everyone must feel eligible to be a part of this natural philosophy, purely as a consequence of their being a citizen of society. On a practical level, this can be achieved by our maintaining a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of the world, and society, around us. In my own field of magnetism for example, to know the physics behind magnetic attraction is to make it more beautiful. And that is in essence what I am trying to communicate with Bean Thinking; just as an artist does with a painting, I am attempting to share the beauty that I see as a result of seeing physics all around me. The saying of Pierre Duhem that “Physical theory is a mathematical painting of reality” can be taken at many levels. As a scientist, I am to a certain extent, an artist.

rain drops on a tulip

A tulip in spring. The water droplets on the petals suggest some very deep physics. As the flower opens into the sunshine, each layer  (physical and metaphorical) of petals reveals a new level of beauty.

Of course, there is no immediate connection between appreciating the beauty of knowledge and allocating research funds. Yet if we, as a society, appreciate science and beauty where we see it, we are going to slowly move back to a more sustainable, scientific way of doing science. “By learning to see and appreciate beauty, we learn to reject self-interested pragmatism”¹. By allowing ourselves to assess the good of society across many measures, we recover science. Denying the fact that what qualifies as ‘good’ is ultimately a value judgement and instead covering it in false metrics, imperils science. It is in the history of humanity to ask ‘why’. Moving to a predominantly technology driven quasi-science does not enrich us as a species. Good art, good music, great science can. Great discoveries of the past have not been obtained by chasing the latest chimera of a device, they have been uncovered through an insatiable curiosity. A demand to know ‘why’ things are the way they are. We are destroying the very science we are so keen to promote if we conform to the key-word, hype and technology driven ‘publish or perish’ culture. It has got to the point where, in order to save science, it is imperative that we, as a society, recover our ability to appreciate the beauty in science.

I hope that Bean Thinking prompts at least some people to question the world around them. It is not important to agree with what is written in Bean Thinking indeed, perhaps with some things it is more important to disagree. The key thing is to notice the world around. The practise of slowing down and noticing things is the reasoning behind the cafe-physics reviews, as much as anything it enables me to practise slowing down and noticing too. To slow down and to appreciate what is there will mean that slowly, imperceptibly perhaps, we challenge the culture of ‘publish or perish’. To do so may not be too far short of a need to recover our humanity, to quote Laudato Si’ again, “[w]e need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity”².

¹ Pope Francis, Laudato Si’, (2015) #215

² ibid, #160

Further thoughts:

Michael Polanyi “Science, Faith and Society”, Sapientia Press, 1964

Michael Polanyi “Personal Knowledge: Towards a post-critical philosophy”, University of Chicago Press, 1974