Metrology and the Press Room, Twickenham

Press Room coffee Twickenham

The arrival of the pour over at the Press Room, Twickenham.

It is not often that I have an errand to run in Twickenham, but when one popped up just two weeks after reading Brian’s Coffee Spot review of The Press Room, it was obvious where we were going to have a coffee. The Press Room serves pour over coffees (along with a good selection of other drinks). It is always great to find somewhere that serves pour overs well and so I had no hesitation in ordering a Nicaraguan “Los Altos” prepared by V60. Hot chocolate was available as white, milk or dark chocolate and there were a number of alternative non-dairy milks on offer as well as a large variety of tea. A lovely feature of The Press Room is that they offer suspended coffees, the idea being that you buy a coffee now for someone later who may not otherwise be able to afford one. The total number of coffees (given/claimed) is recorded on a blackboard behind the counter. It was nice to see that at the time of our visit 800+ coffees had been paid forward (and just less than 800 claimed), suggesting that the Press Room is having a positive effect on its local community.

clock wall Twickenham coffee

The large clock on the wall at The Press Room in Twickenham.

A great thing about ordering a pour over is watching as the barista expertly prepares your coffee, taking the time to do this properly. To be fair, this is part of the reason that finding a café serving pour-overs is becoming more difficult. After a while, the coffee was brought over to our table together with a bowl ready for me to place the filter cone on it when I was ready to enjoy the coffee. After taking the obligatory photograph, and pondering when would be the best time to remove the filter from the top of the mug and place it onto the empty bowl, the clock next to us took our attention. It is a large time piece that dominates this corner of the room. It is revealing to consider how the accuracy and availability of clocks have changed the way we live as a society.

Considering measurement (of time and other things), I used to be in this area more frequently a few years ago when I worked on a project in collaboration with the National Physical Laboratory (which is down the road, on the same bus route that Brian’s Coffee Spot notes takes you to a few good cafés). Partly, NPL’s work is to ensure that we know how to measure things properly. Take the pour over I enjoyed at The Press Room. A known amount (perhaps 12 g) of coffee was weighed out before 200 g of water was poured slowly over the coffee. But how do you know that the 12 g measured at Press Coffee is the same 12 g as you measure at home? And while perhaps it may not be critical for the coffee culture (even the most extreme home-brewer does not need to know the amount of coffee they are using to the nearest 0.000 002%), knowing accurately how heavy something is can be extremely important. Hence the need for a standard kilogram (and a standard metre, second, Candela etc) so that we have a way of knowing that what you call a kg is the same as what I call a kg.

coffee bowl pour over

The coffee that escaped! But was it a measure of my patience or hesitation?

Oddly, the kilogram is the last fundamental unit still defined with reference to a physical object (the other fundamental units are seconds, metres, Kelvin, Amperes, Moles, Candelas). The kilogram reference block is a PtIr alloy kept at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures near Paris. However all this may change next year depending on a decision due in November 2018. If all goes to plan, from May 2019 all units will be defined with respect to natural constants such as the speed of light etc. For the kilogram, this has meant measuring mass relative to a magnetic force generated by a coil of wire in a device known as a Kibble balance. In this way, the kg can be defined with respect to Planck’s constant and an era in which we measured substances relative to known objects will end.

On a day to day level though, how much do these things matter to us? Sometimes the way we measure things affects how we view them (and therefore what questions we ask next). Take for example temperature. We are used to measuring degrees of ‘hot’, so on the centigrade scale 0ºC is the freezing point of water and 100ºC is the boiling point. But it wasn’t always this way. Celsius devised his original scale to measure degrees of cold so 0º was the boiling point of water and 100º was the freezing point (you can read more about that story here). It is arguable that changing to measuring degrees of ‘hot’ enabled us to more easily conceptualise the idea of heat as energy and the field of thermodynamics. Certainly for a while, considering the idea of ‘degrees of cold’ meant that some looked for a substance of ‘cold’ called “frigorific“¹. There’s a similarity here with the coffee at The Press Room, was the amount of coffee in the bowl used to hold the filter after I removed it from the mug a measure of my impatience before trying the coffee or my hesitation at testing the coffee? How we ask that question affects how we view the coffee and the café (for reference, I would take the positive interpretation: the amount of coffee in the bowl measures my impatience; I was eager to try the coffee).

droplets on the side of a mug

Condensation on the side of the mug. These droplets can reveal many aspects of physics, which do you think about?

Partly this suggests some of the ways in which language, and philosophy, underpin all science. It certainly suggests one further connection with this bright and comfortable café. Erich Fromm in “To have or to be”² considered an interesting linguistic usage that reveals our way of being. Do we “have an idea”, or do we “think”? Are we consumers or people with experiences? Do we wish to have, to acquire, to consume or do we wish to exist, to be. Our language affects how we perceive the world which in turn changes the language we use about it. Linguistically, depending on how we interpret the cafe’s name “The Press Room”, we either have a café that offers a space to read the latest news or one that is reflective of the coffee brewing process (specifically espresso); a space to get up to date or one in which to contemplate? The symbol of the café visible in the frontage of the shop and on the mugs suggests the latter, but maybe it is something we need to experience to truly know?

¹Inventing Temperature, Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2008

²To have or to be, Erich Fromm, Jonathan Cape, 1978

The Press Room is at 29 London Road, TW1 3SW

Is sixty the old forty?

Lundenwic coffee

What is the ideal temperature at which to serve coffee?

What is the optimum temperature at which to enjoy a cup of coffee?

A brief check online for the “ideal” serving temperature for coffee suggested a temperature of around 49-60ºC (120-140ºF, 313-333K) for flavour or 70-80ºC (158-176ºF, 343.1-353.1K) for a hot drink. In my own experiments (purely to write this article you understand), I found that I most enjoyed a lovely coffee from The Roasting House (prepared by V60) at around 52ºC. My old chemistry teacher must have been one who enjoyed the flavour of his coffee too. His advice for A-level practicals was that if we wanted to know what 60ºC ‘felt’ like, we should consider that it feels the same on the back of our hand as the underside of our cup of coffee. So, for argument’s sake, let’s say that we serve our coffee at the upper end of the flavour appreciation scale: 60ºC.

But, have you ever stopped to consider what 60ºC means or even, how we arrived at this particular temperature scale? Why do we measure temperature in the way that we do? While there are interesting stories behind the Fahrenheit scale, today’s post concerns the Celsius, or Centigrade, scale. Indeed, we use “degree Celsius” and “degree Centigrade” almost interchangeably to mean that temperature scale that has 0ºC as the melting point, and 100ºC as the boiling point, of water. It is one of those things that has become so habitual that setting 0ºC at the freezing end and 100ºC at the boiling end seems obvious, intuitive, natural.

thermometer in a nun mug

Careful how you drink your coffee if you repeat this experiment!

And yet the temperature scale that Anders Celsius (1701-1744) invented back in 1741 did not, initially, work this way at all¹. Celsius’s scale did indeed count from 0ºC to 100ºC and was defined using the same fixed points we use now. But rather than counting up from the melting point, Celsius’s scale counted up from 0ºC at the boiling point to 100ºC at the freezing point. Rather than degrees of warmth, Celsius’s scale counted degrees of cold. So, in the original Celsius scale, the serving temperature of coffee should be 40ºC: Sixty is indeed the old forty*.

Which immediately begs a question. Why is it that we count temperature up (the numbers get higher as it gets hotter)? A first answer could be that we view that temperature is a form of measurement of ‘heat’ and that heat is an energy. Consequently, something cold has less energy than something hot, “cold” is the absence of “heat” and therefore what we should measure is “heat”. This means that our thermometers need to indicate higher numbers as the temperature gets hotter, and so we are now counting the correct way. While this is good as far as it goes and certainly is our current understanding of ‘heat’, ‘cold’ and temperature, how is it that we have come to think of heat as energy and cold as the absence of heat? It was certainly not clear to scientists in the Renaissance period. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) considered that cold was a form of “contractive motion” while Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) thought that although ‘caloric’ atoms were needed to explain heat, ‘frigoric’ atoms were also needed to explain cold.

effect of motivation on experience of pleasure while drinking coffee

How heat, rather than visible light, is reflected provides clues as to why we measure temperature ‘up’.

One experiment that helped to show that heat was an energy (and so lent support to the idea of measuring temperature ‘up’) was that of the reflection of heat by mirrors. In the experiment, two concave mirrors are placed facing each other, some distance apart. Each mirror has a focal length of, say, 15 cm. A hot object is placed at the focal length of the first mirror. At the focal point of the second mirror, is placed a thermometer. As soon as both objects are in place, the temperature indicated by the thermometer increases. If the mirror were covered or the thermometer moved away from the focal point, the temperature indicated decreases again to that of the room. It is an experiment which can easily be demonstrated in a lecture hall and which fitted with a view point that cold is the absence of heat.

However, around the same time as this initial demonstration, Marc-Auguste Pictet did another experiment, the (apparent) reflection of cold². The experiment was as before but in Pictet’s second experiment, a flask containing ice replaced the hot object. On repeating the experiment the temperature indicated by the thermometer decreased. Covering the mirror or moving the thermometer from the focal point of the mirror resulted in the indicated temperature increasing again. Just as ‘heat’ was reflected in the mirrors, so too (seemingly) was ‘cold’.

So, the question is, how do you know what you believe you know about heat? Are there experiments that you can design that could help to disprove a theory of ‘frigoric’? And how do you explain the experiments of Pictet? Reader, it’s over to you.


*Within ten years of Celsius’s death (of tuberculosis in 1744), his colleagues Martin Strömer and Daniel Ekström had inverted Celsius’s original temperature scale to the form we know today. A similar scale designed by Jean Pierre Christin was also in use by 1743³.

¹”Evolution of the Thermometer 1592-1743″, Henry Carrington Bolton, The Chemical Publishing Company, 1900

²”Inventing Temperature”, Hasok Chang, Oxford University Press, 2008

³”The science of measurement, a historical survey”, Herbert Arthur Klein, Dover Publications Inc. 1988