It was 8am on an unseasonably warm morning in November. There were two cafes open on All Saints Road in Notting Hill, but Conscience Kitchen had an open door and comfy looking seating outside. Conscience Kitchen describes itself on its sandwich board as a “restaurant and coffee house”. At 8am in the morning, I wasn’t going to try the restaurant bit (though there were croissants available), but I did enjoy the coffee house bit. Seating had already been arranged outside. There were comfortable and cushioned seats immediately outside the cafe, a set of table and chairs on a converted parking space diagonally in front and a covered section in the parking space immediately outside the cafe. There were also plenty of seats in the spacious interior. The cushioned seats just by the window however offered a perfect spot to watch the world go by.
As it was a week day, plenty of people were either commuting to work or taking children to school. It is interesting how much you can discern about someone passing by when you listen to how their footsteps sound. Confident and clipped, shuffling or lethargic, or occasional combined with the whirling of the wheels of a scooter. A large number of characters passed by as I sat with my coffee. The coffee was an El Salvador single origin roasted by Round Hill coffee roasters. There was also a guest coffee on offer that day from a roaster in Amsterdam but as I didn’t realise this until I was paying I missed the opportunity to try both sorts.
Conscience Kitchen signed the lease on the shop in March 2020. What timing! Shortly after opening they had to close with the lock-downs and so the past eighteen months have been a series of adaptations as they renovated and grew their business. It does seem that their focus on good, organic food has attracted a loyal local following. At times during the second lockdown, the coffee house was turned into a produce store and while those days are far behind us (hopefully), that time did allow the locals to appreciate the care that Conscience Kitchen took over their ingredients. The pandemic times have also affected the seating arrangements with both the aforementioned parking space seating and the outdoor heaters a sign of our times. It was fairly warm that day and so I declined the offer of them turning the heating on for me, I had a hat and a coat after all. But this did give me a reason to look at the heater a bit more closely.
The heater consisted of a strange light bulb like fitting which led to a coil of what I had assumed was wire, enclosed in a tube and backed by a silvered domed surface. Investigating such heaters later, the ‘wire’ was more likely to be a weaved carbon fibre element. Regardless of what the heating element was made from, the mechanism of heating is the same. The power emitted by the element is the product of the electrical resistance of the element and the square of the current going through it. This relation, known as the Joule-Lenz law was discovered independently by Emil Lenz and James Prescott Joule in the 1840s. So why use weaved carbon fibre as a heating element? There are presumably a few reasons. Firstly, as a weave, a network of fibres, the heater will be more resilient if one of these, for any reason, breaks. If we had a single tungsten wire (as an extreme example), and it broke, the heater would no longer work. This makes the heater more long lasting. But there is a second, more physics based reason for using carbon fibre.
The power rating of the heater is defined as the energy emitted per unit time. When you subject a material to a given amount of energy, it is heated. The increase in temperature of the material is proportional to the amount of energy you put in, divided by the specific heat capacity of the substance which is material dependent. The specific heat capacity of woven carbon fibre is approximately twice that of copper and five times that of tungsten. This means that, for the same amount of energy the carbon fibre will heat up less than the metal wires. This provides the clue for the silvered dome. The heat from the heater is not really just coming directly from the electricity passing through the heating element. The second component is the infrared radiation emitted as a consequence of the temperature of the heating element. As the carbon fibre is not so hot as a metal element of the same power rating, the infrared radiation is at a different wavelength which turns out to be more efficient at keeping us feeling warm. The silvered dome was there to reflect the heat back towards the people on the terrace, further increasing the efficiency of this heater.
Looking further around, I noticed the hashtag on the Conscience Kitchen sandwich board: # Less is way more (unsure about the spacing!). Does this have an analogue in physics? Since the time of Joule and Lenz, physics has undergone increasing specialisation. In Joule’s time, physicists could investigate any number of topics which were also related to each other: heat, optics and electricity, or magnetism and fluid dynamics. Experiments with electricity informed our understanding of thermodynamics for example, while mathematics provided connections between magnetism and fluid dynamics via vortices. Researching one of these fields could, and did, lead to fruitful advances in other fields.
Since then, physics has become increasingly specialised and our research focus very narrow. In my field of magnetism, it is highly unlikely that I would get to investigate any aspect of fluid dynamics except for fun over the coffee table. It has been joked that, as individuals at least, we know ‘more and more about less and less’. This specialisation has however led to an enormous growth in our understanding of each of these sub-fields, and, correspondingly, a growth in the technological applications of the research. For example, dedicated research into a specific small detail of how electrical current travelled through layers of magnetic materials led to the sudden increase in the storage capacity of hard disks in the 1990s (and to a Nobel prize). The increased ability to store data has led to other fields being able to investigate highly data intensive areas and so produce advances in their subfields too. These are advances that could not have been made without specialisation.
Is this the ‘more’ of the “less is way more” equivalent for physics? Or is there perhaps a ‘way more’ about it?
The science historian LWH Hull described our situation as if the varying specialists were like people exploring the branches of neighbouring trees, “A man cannot understand other people’s problems by interrupting his own work to climb a few feet up their trees…”* Where then does this leave science? No physicist can any longer be a practitioner of the entire field of physics. Certainly no scientist can any longer understand ‘science’. And yet physics progresses because we work together in an inter-disciplinary way using our community to build a deeper understanding of the whole. This can only work because there is trust in other scientists and in the integrity of the work that they do. A trust that builds community which has consequences for our approach to society. Michael Polanyi took it further “Fairness in discussion has been defined as an attempt at objectivity, ie. a preference for truth even at the expense of losing in force of argument. Nobody can practise this unless he believes that truth exists.”**
“Less is way more”, but how “way more” do we want to take it?
Conscience Kitchen is at 23 All Saints Road, W11 1HE
*Quote from History and Philosophy of Science, LWH Hull, Longmans, Green and Co Ltd, 1959 – it is possible that it is not a verbatim quote as I only have my notes of this book with me at the moment and not the full text.
**In “Science, faith and society” by Michael Polanyi, Oxford University Press, 1946