data

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

 

 

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