What is a good coffee?

Sun-dog, Sun dog

A photo to suggest happiness? Spotting sun dogs makes me happy.

A few weeks ago, an opinion piece appeared in a UK newspaper with the title “Scientists find nirvana as hard to explain as to attain”. The article was about the launch of a course, endorsed by the Dalai Lama, by the group ‘Action for Happiness‘ and the release that week of the Office of National Statistics League table of personal well-being. While happiness and well-being are both evidently things that we want to encourage, what do we mean by quantifying well-being into a league table?

It seems to be part of what can be a tendency to ‘scientise’ aspects of our lives and experience, aspects that are clearly, when we think about them, not described by science. Coffee is not immune from this. Studies have been made of how we feel about drinking our coffee based on whether we drink coffee for pleasure or for the caffeine kick. Why is it that we feel the need to quantify something in order to demonstrate that we have an understanding of it? Does labelling something as ‘scientific’ give it greater credibility?

As described elsewhere, part of the thinking behind Bean Thinking is to explore the beauty and the connectedness that an appreciation of the science in a coffee cup can give us. But there is an important corollary to this. It is to celebrate the contribution of those other aspects of our thinking that allow us to appreciate beauty: Art, literature, history. Beauty is not a quantity that can be defined scientifically (although we all seem to have a mutual appreciation of beauty and, surprisingly often, of what is beautiful). Happiness is similar. We have an understanding of what happiness is but a quantitative evaluation of happiness eludes us.

good coffee, nun mug, Ritzenhoff

How would you define a good coffee?

In hindsight it seems that, entirely unintentionally, the tagline of Bean Thinking captured both of these aspects of meaning. “Where entertaining science meets good coffee“: Hopefully it is fairly easy to find the science on the website but good coffee? What do we mean by ‘good’. Is my version of “good” coffee the same as yours? Is ‘good’ in this context something that can be quantified (acidity, aroma etc) or something more, a word that incorporates aspects of the living conditions of the farmers who grow the coffee and the workers who pick the cherries at harvest time? In attempting to understand what is a ‘good coffee’ we may be tempted to define good as being a coffee having certain properties, a pH around X, a quantity of caffeine around Y and a fraction of 2-furfurylthiol (a chemical which contributes to coffee’s pleasurable aroma) of at least Z. This is a route that will lead us to instant!

But joking aside, by narrowly defining the word ‘good’ so that we feel that our understanding of it is scientific and therefore irrefutable, we have lost what we originally meant by good. Science is an important tool, one that helps us to understand (and to control) the world around us but it is not a philosophy. We can never use science to define a ‘good coffee’ in a way that we would all recognise as a good definition of good. Of course science can help us to decide aspects of a good coffee (the pH, the caffeine content etc. all contribute to a good cup) but we cannot use it, of itself, to define a good cup. The same must go for happiness and other aspects of our lives (can we measure a good school by its position in a league table for example?). We must always be on our guard against over-stating the proper limits of science. We cannot use it in defence of a metaphysical position. The strength of science lies in its being a key part of our tool box for examining and understanding the world.

Fish in a tank

Fish in a tank

Admitting that aspects of our definition of a good coffee are qualitative, arguable or even “subjective” does not devalue the meaning of the word good. The same applies to happiness and many other areas. Quantifying something can mean that we understand it less. Midgley has an interesting analogy in this context of the roles of different areas of our thought:

[An image that is helpful] is that of the world as a huge aquarium. We cannot see it as a whole from above, so we peer in at it through a number of small windows. Inside, the lighting is not always good and there are rocks and weeds for the inhabitants to hide in. Is that the same fish coming out that we saw just now over there? And are those things stones or starfish? We can eventually make quite a lot of sense of this habitat if we patiently put together the data from different angles. But if we insist that our own window is the only one worth looking through, we shall not get very far.“*

According to the ‘quantitative’ measurement of well-being in the ONS survey, London is a relatively miserable place. The Action for Happiness group runs a Happy Cafe network which includes two London cafes: The Canvas and The Skittle Alley Coffee & Pantry. I have no idea as to whether such cafes can help us to live happier and more meaningful lives. I do know however that I won’t be able to find out whether they do so ‘scientifically’. I also know, that slowing down and spending five minutes contemplating my coffee, wherever I am, will help me to develop into a more rounded person. I am unable to define (scientifically) what I mean by rounded.

If you have a good definition of good, why not share it in the comments section below. Alternatively, if you are enjoying five minutes (or more) in a great cafe with something about it that is interesting to notice, why not think about writing it as a cafe-physics review?

* “The Myths We Live By”, Mary Midgley, was published by Routledge Classics, 2004



Can you see me? At 123 Gasing, KL

Coffee at 123 Gasing

Latte, Long black and chocolate muffin at 123 Gasing, PJ, KL

There are times when you can sit and observe things for quite a while before noticing the physics that becomes a cafe-physics review. There are other occasions when the subject of the review is staring you in the face indeed, it is practically there written for you, on a noticeboard in black and white. Such was the case at 123 Gasing, a cosy and quirkily decorated cafe located, strangely enough at 123 Jalan Gasing (ie. Gasing Road), in PJ, Kuala Lumpur. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of scrambled egg, long black and a latte (along with a very rich chocolate muffin). The coffee is from Degayo (according to Malaysian Flavours) which means that it is practically a local food product (originating as it does from neighbouring Indonesia). Coffee with minimal ‘food miles’. The only point of regret about our time at 123 Gasing was that we didn’t manage to spend longer there.

decoration at 123 Gasing

Birds on the wall at 123 Gasing.

It is the decoration that strikes you as you look around this cafe. A couple of painted birds sit on top of an electrical wire, prompting the question “why do birds not get electrocuted when they sit on a wire?”. Another question painted to a notice board on the wall asks “what is it that we need that we cannot see or feel?” (answer at the end of this post). Yet it was another thought on another noticeboard that prompted this cafe physics review. That thought suggested invisibility (see picture below).

The idea of invisibility has fascinated story tellers and philosophers for millennia. Trying to render objects invisible is, understandably, very desirable for the military and the defence industry. Although we have always had access to camouflage and deception, it is only relatively recently that it has become feasible to talk about invisibility cloaks as a real possibility.

A sign at 123 Gasing

Am I invisible?

What has moved “invisibility cloaks” into the realm of reality has been the advent of a field called “metamaterials”. As the name suggests, metamaterials are not materials that occur naturally but materials that we manufacture. Combinations of different materials or repeating patterns of a specific material that interact with light in a way that the material itself would not do. The classic example is a so-called split-ring resonator (SRR). These are rings (that were first made with copper) which have a slice cut out of them. Many such rings are arranged in a repeating, lattice pattern. Due to the engineered pattern of the copper, these lattices interact with light in a way that ordinary copper does not (for details click here). Specifically metamaterials can be engineered to bend light around objects so that it appears that the object is not there.

In order to work, the artificial structures (e.g. the copper rings) must be smaller than the wavelength of light that is to be ‘bent’. This means that microwaves (which have a wavelength ranging from a few cm to a few m) can be manipulated far more easily than visible light (with a maximum wavelength of 700 nm, or about 1/100th of the size of a grain of espresso grind). At first sight this may seem disappointing until we remember that even devices that only work with microwaves would have a clear application for the defence industry (radar).

already disturbed

Hopefully not a comment on current scientific funding

There are many ethical and philosophical questions that follow from the fact that it is now within our reach to render some objects invisible. It is not a scientific question as to whether we should do it, the scientific question is whether we can. Where science and ethics collide though is in the funding issue. A subject such as this with obvious applications receives far more funding than fields that advance our understanding but do not enhance our weaponry. Indeed, one of the researchers involved in this field describes how he was “offered large sums of money (almost on the spot)” when he spoke of the potentials of the “Harry Potter project”¹. Something that is alien to those of us who work in less fashionable subject areas where funding is a constant struggle. Government funded science quickly becomes dominated by a quest for application and technology. In effect we bypass the ethical questions of whether we should do this because it is this that will get funded. Science that is not driven by obvious applications will not get funded.

Is this what we want? Should the humanities and philosophy play a role in helping to determine what research is beneficial for society and so which research receives funding? Should ethical considerations play a part in funding considerations, or should scientific research all be about the devices that we can use? It is certainly something to ponder while sipping on our long blacks.

Answer to the question “what is it that we need that we cannot see or feel? Answer in 1990 – Air, answer in 2000 – Wi-fi (though personally I think maybe this should be the answer in 2015, the given answer of “2000” was still a bit early for widespread wifi).

Further reading and [1]: “The Physics of Invisibility” Martin Beech, New York, Springer, 2012