Just off the busy Notting Hill Gate itself, on a side street, is a small corner cafe called Kuro Coffee. White brick with a couple of benches outside, the cafe is at the corner of Hillgate Street and Uxbridge Street. The area is relatively quiet and sitting on the bench outside while enjoying a coffee is certainly, strangely given the location, fairly peaceful. Kuro Coffee seems to come in two guises. The first, which we tried, was the coffee/cafe guise. This Kuro serves coffee, tea and matcha with a good selection of pastries. The second is the Kuro-late version, which has a license. We’ll have to return to try that another time.
Assuming that you are going for the coffee, you have the usual choice of drink types served either with the regular coffee or a guest single origin. On our visit, the single origin was an El Salvador with an interesting set of tasting notes, so trying the single origin long black became too tempting. It is worth remembering that the entrance to the cafe is up a couple of stairs. While this was no problem on the way in, forgetting the steps on the way out led to a slight coffee loss, though I recovered in time to save both coffee and some dignity. The cafe itself is a small room with the counter on the right as you enter. The large window at the front of the cafe gives the space plenty of light and, if you wanted to stay inside, there is seating upstairs.
Returning to the bench outside with our coffees, we watched as the traffic went past as well as the clients of the nearby dog grooming shop. The buildings around Kuro Coffee certainly give a hint as to the complex history of this area of London, together with a nod towards some of the more colourful buildings that it has become famous for. The Coronet Theatre just opposite the cafe dates from 1898 and is richly decorated in the style of the time. Towards the main road, the buildings take on an appearance far more characteristic of the 1950s-60s when the main road was widened and a lot of the historical area demolished. These block-like buildings contrast with the intricacy of the decoration on the theatre and the individuality of the houses within this part of “Hillgate village”. It has been said that the architecture of an era and location reflects the values of the society that builds it. What does this say as we look around, and which buildings, if any, resonate with us, which do we find beautiful?
It is a question with relevance to physics. Many theories in physics are considered to be ‘beautiful’ but what does this mean, particularly when applied to physics? Michael Polanyi captured part of it when he wrote “The affirmation of a great scientific theory is in part an expression of delight. The theory has an inarticulate component acclaiming its beauty…”(1) We may not be able to define beauty, but the delight we feel discovering it as we learn about some parts of physics is something that we can certainly sense.
One of the theories that is considered beautiful in this way is that of relativity, one part of which has become part of our common knowledge, E = mc2. Special relativity holds that the speed of light in a vacuum is the same for all observers. This is remarkable partly because it contrasts so much with our every-day experience. When we think about our every-day, if we were to be travelling on a train and throw a tennis ball forwards, we would see the ball move away from us at, say 15 metres per second. Someone standing on the station platform watching as the train goes by would see the ball move at 15 m/s plus the speed of the train. Perhaps it is more dramatic if we threw the ball backwards, it may appear to the observer on the station platform that the ball was actually stationary as the train moved past the platform. This is not true of light. If I was on a train and could measure the speed of light travelling away from me, I would measure it travelling at 2.998 x 10^8 m/s. Someone on the platform watching light travel away from me would measure it to have exactly the same speed, we call it c.
You may say that trains are (relatively) slow, even the high speed ones, and so maybe this is just within error but it is true irrespective of the speed of the train. The famous example is of Einstein wondering what would happen if he was driving his car and looking in the internal mirror at his reflection. To begin with, everything is fine, he can see his reflection, but as the car’s speed increases to close to the speed of light what would happen then? He would see his own reflection! As if nothing has changed, the speed of light relative to Einstein would be the same, c. Someone watching and seeing that the car was travelling at, say 0.9c would not measure the speed of light in the car to be c + 0.9c = 1.9c. No! They would measure the speed of light within the car to also be, c.
The solution to this seeming paradox is how we arrive at the idea that moving clocks go slow and, of course, the famous equation E = mc2, the idea that the energy (E) of an object is equivalent to its resting mass (m) multiplied by the speed of light squared. These ideas have been tested by comparing a stationary and a fast moving atomic clock and, in the case of the energy-mass equivalence in the atomic bomb where a very small amount of mass translates to an enormous about of explosive energy. Another test of the idea is comparing the speed of light on Earth along the direction of the Earth’s rotation around the Sun and perpendicular to it. If light waves did behave like the tennis ball on the train, there should be a difference between the light speed measured in these two directions (which can be done by a technique called interferometry). The result of this experiment, now known as the Michelson-Morley experiment, supported the theory of (special) relativity: light did not behave like a tennis ball in a train(2)!
The beauty comes as we explore the physics, and the maths, that allow these equations and results to emerge. Nonetheless, it is still perplexing and boggling, perhaps even a little bit weird. Beauty can definitely be disconcerting, but it retains an ability to push the intellect into an “expression of delight”. Where else do we experience this “expression of delight”, do we recognise beauty similarly for beautiful physics and beautiful buildings? As we sit on the bench which looks towards the west, we can know that the light reflected back from the buildings is travelling at the same speed whether we look ahead of us or immediately to our right; in opposition to the additional speed of rotation of the earth or neutral to it. The buildings immediately in front of us or to our right however are certainly not of the same level of beauty and aesthetics. What makes it so? Perhaps it would be a good time to go and get yourself a coffee and a space on the bench, and just enjoy the moment as you experience the present, ahead of you and to your right.
Kuro Coffee is at 3 Hillgate Street, W8 7SP
1 Michael Polanyi, “Personal Knowledge, towards a post-critical philosophy”, University of Chicago Press, 1958
2 There is some discussion about whether the Michelson-Morley experiment prompted Einstein to think about his idea of relativity or not. As I am not a historian of science, I won’t get into this as it is incidental to the story. Einstein was certainly aware of the Michelson-Morley experiment and thought it helpful as an experimental support of his theory, the discussion of its importance in the development of the theory can be found in Polanyi cited above.