Journeying with coffee

Always plenty to notice while brewing coffee

A short while back while preparing a V60 and watching the coffee level slowly rise to “4 cups” (just about what is needed in the morning for one person I think), I started wondering about rain gauges and how we measure the rainfall. While the first rain gauge was recorded in India in the 4th Century BCE, their design was still being optimised well into the 20th Century. We clearly need to know and agree how to measure rainfall, not just for agricultural reasons, but also for our understanding of the climate. But, more fundamentally, being able to measure quantities precisely and accurately, as well as being able to agree on what we measure seem to be fundamental to any advancements in science. We are perhaps struck by the number of people who have contributed to our knowledge of the world, either directly or indeed indirectly through getting it ‘wrong’. How many times have wrong ideas contributed to an advance in, what we consider at the moment to be, the right ideas?

And then there is the kettle that you may have boiled to prepare the coffee. Hidden by familiarity, the bimetallic switch that ensures that the kettle turns off as the water boils is a fairly recent invention. While the development of our understanding of the perfect brewing temperature for coffee is a mixture of the work of the coffee professionals and the development of the thermometer, itself a journey into science and philosophy.

kettle, V60, spout, pourover, v60 preparation
An over-looked item? It can be instructive to consider how many people have worked to optimise this ‘ordinary’ kitchen object.

Indeed, when we consider the number of people who have contributed to our ability to enjoy our morning coffee it is striking. From the roaster to the farmer, the trader to the inventor: pausing to consider these things may perhaps emphasise to us our dependence on (and growth in) society rather than our individuality.  But then, if we extend our thoughts to the insects and agriculture that enable the coffee plants to thrive, we may come to an awareness of our dependence on the planet; a recognition that “we are profoundly united with every creature….”¹ Does this awareness have an influence on how we behave in and as a society?

In “Styles of Knowing”, Chunglin Kwa argued that just as the forms and styles of painting are responses to the social circumstances, so are styles of knowing². He argued that:

Earth from space, South America, coffee
How do our attitudes affect the science we do, and our perception of the coffee we drink?
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

“[The humanists] strong emphasis on the vita activa [rather than the vita contemplativa] probably contributed to a scientific mentality aimed at sweeping aside obstacles, making decisions, and then taking action, rather than focussing on consensus, like the medieval scholastics. For humanists, it was the will that mattered.”

It seems that in our society as we encounter ever more distractions, there are always more ways for us to believe that we are busy and therefore useful. Does our embracing of this ‘busy life’ contribute to some of the issues that we define as problems? Do we gain control over some of the issues by taking responsibility for parts of them rather than avoiding them? What would happen if we stopped to contemplate our world, maybe just for 30 minutes each day? We could even do it while we journey into the world revealed by our coffee mug. Would it affect the way that we do science, think about society or drink our coffee?

There is a great deal of depth in a cup of coffee. Four cups is not enough. Do let me know where your mind wanders.

¹Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, 2015

²Styles of Knowing: a new history of science from ancient times other present, Chunglin Kwa, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011

Allergy friendly cafe with good nut knowledge Coffee review Coffee Roasters Observations Sustainability/environmental

Bee-ing positive at the Sugar Pot, Kennington

coffee and cake Kennington
Banana bread and coffee with a sugar pot in the background at Sugar Pot, Kennington

What is it that makes a great café? A space to slow down and think? Good coffee and cakes? A local business that forms part of its local community and gives back to that community in different ways? As I was looking around for a new café to try, I was reminded of Sugar Pot in Kennington. Their website suggested that it ticked all of these boxes and so I was eager to try it (so eager in fact that I didn’t note the opening times, they close at 3 on week-days which is a problem when you arrive at about 2.55). So a second attempt at trying Sugar Pot was arranged, this time safely before lunch. This time, in the morning, there were quite a few chairs and tables outside the café in a roped off area of the street. (We hadn’t noticed this on the first occasion we visited as they had all been piled up inside the shop by the time we arrived). Most of these tables were occupied indicating that it is clearly an attractive place for locals to meet and chat over coffee. Fortunately there were also a fair number of tables inside which suited us as a café often offers more to ponder inside than out (though outside offers a different perspective particularly for people watching).

Inside, each table has an individual character and one in particular offered several points to think about both in terms of physics and aesthetics (you will have to visit to understand). However, it was elsewhere that my attention was drawn that day. Coffee is roasted locally by Cable Bakery while the cakes are from John the Baker of the Kennington Bakery. Sugar Pot definitely gets a tick in the “allergy friendly” box because they answered confidently (and with required caveats about traces) my dreaded question “does it contain nuts?” So I was able to enjoy a lovely slice of banana bread with my coffee. Most of the usual espresso based drinks are available (but not listed on the menu) together with a French Press coffee for those who prefer a non-espresso brew.

Interior Sugar Pot, Kennington
Noticeboard, magazines and coffee counter at Sugar Pot in Kennington

The community feel of the café was immediately apparent with a notice board adjacent to the counter being packed with notices of different activities happening around the locality and within Kennington Park which is just opposite. Underneath the counter were books and magazines and an advert for volunteering with the local bee keeping and urban farming organisation Bee Urban. This is indeed another way that Sugar pot gets involved in its local community. The coffee grounds are donated to Bee Urban for use in their Kennington Park based composting facility. Bees of course have an Albert Einstein link with physics as he is alleged to have said

“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollinators, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

I do not know if he really did say this but it is a sad reflection on our society that rather than address our environmental crimes we are researching pollinating with drones. However, it turns out the the bee has a much more exciting, almost shocking, link with physics and one that I only discovered thanks to the excellent book “Storm in a Teacup” by Helen Czerski¹. The bee is indeed a very positive creature.

ultra violet, bee, bumble bee
The world looks very different to a bee. Image ©

Whether or not they have a happy disposition, it seems that 94% of bees are, electrically speaking, positively charged². They pick up a static charge while flying through the air in a similar way to a balloon being rubbed on your hair. Flowers meanwhile have a negative charge meaning that in addition to colour, shape, scent and pattern, bees can recognise flowers by their electric fields. These fields in turn mean that pollen from the flower ‘jumps off’ and adheres to the bees fur before the bee has even landed, increasing the efficiency of the bee as a pollinator. But it turns out that there is much more to it. When the positive bee lands on the negative flower, there is a charge transfer that results in a change of the electric field around the flower for a duration of 100 seconds or so. By constructing artificial flowers held at different voltages containing either a sugar reward or a bitter centre, researchers at Bristol university found that bees could learn to recognise which ‘flowers’ contained the sugar and which were too bitter to be visited by sensing the electric field around the ‘flower’. It suggests that the changing electric field of real flowers provides a mechanism by which the bee can recognise if a flower has been recently visited by another bee and so been recently pollenated. This would mean that by ‘feeling’ the electric field of the flower, the bee may decide that it would be more rewarding to carry on to a differently charged flower. You can read more about the research in the paper here.

It seems to me that learning about how the bee senses its environment reveals even more about the amazing way that nature (and physics) works. And this offers a link back to Sugar Pot. On the shelf behind the counter back at Sugar Pot was a card that had the message “Keep safe, live to be”. What does it mean “live to be”? In the environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis urges everyone to slow down and notice things such as the bee commenting that “If someone has not learned to stop and admire something beautiful, we should not be surprised if he or she treats everything as an object to be used and abused without scruple.” He goes on “… when media and the digital world become omnipresent, their influence can stop people from learning how to live wisely, to think deeply and to love generously… True wisdom, as the fruit of self-examination, dialogue and generous encounter between persons, is not acquired by a mere accumulation of data...”³ Which is one reason that in order to be, we may want to come back and take a closer look at those bees. Taking time to experience our coffee in a relaxing space such as Sugar Pot and to watch and ponder as the bee uses senses of which we are barely aware can never be a waste of our time. Indeed, it is possible that our world may depend on it.

¹Storm in a Teacup, Helen Czerski, Transworld Publishers, 2016

² Clarke et al., “Detection and learning of Floral Electric Fields by Bumblebees”, Science, 340, 6128, 66 (2013).

³The passages quoted are from paragraphs 215 and 225 respectively of Laudato Si which can be read online.

Sugar Pot can be found at 248 Kennington Park Road, SE11 4DA

Coffee review General Observations Science history slow

Science & Religion at Rag & Bone Coffee, Westminster

Rag&Bone, Rag & bone, coffee Victoria, coffee Westminster
Rag & Bone Coffee in front of St Matthew’s Church.

Can a coffee cart provide the time and space for reflection and enjoyment of a coffee just as a sit-down cafe can? In seeking an answer to this question (as well as on a quest to find more great coffee in the Victoria/Westminster area), I turned up at Rag & Bone coffee on Great Peter St. It was quiet when I arrived in the courtyard of St Matthew’s Church, and the barista took time to make me a lovely, fruity and full bodied Americano (with beans roasted by Old Spike Roastery). Obviously, there is no seating around the bar but, the church behind the cart is open everyday and offers a rare quiet spot in Victoria to sit and reflect, should you want to do so, before you buy your coffee of course! Sadly, as this is a cart and not a sit-down cafe, the cups provided are disposable, but there is nothing to stop you taking your keep-cup along in order to enjoy your coffee. Just behind the cart, a crucifix above the door of the church caught my eye. And that got me thinking about something, perhaps slightly tangential to the ordinary cafe-physics reviews of Bean Thinking, why do some people imagine there is a conflict between religion and science?

I could see how there could be a disagreement if a religion took an overly literal interpretation of a text (as can happen with disputes over evolution). Or if someone used science as an argument against ‘belief’ while failing to appreciate that science too is based on belief (albeit beliefs that we are most likely just to assume as facts without questioning: particularly that our world exists and that it can be understood). But outside those extremes, and if we look at the motivations of both religion and science, it is surely that both religion and science aim to discover or value truth. If both sincerely follow that aim there can be no real conflict, for truth cannot contradict itself.

Earth from space, South America, coffee
One planet. One home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Instead the investigations of one can inform the other and help both to advance our understanding of the world. Take for example the urgent issue of climate change. Scientists, using science as a tool, can investigate and highlight areas of concern for our planet (increasing CO2 levels, rising sea temperatures, a probable increase in extreme weather events, etc) but strictly speaking, as a tool it can go no further. If a scientist then urges us to do something to mitigate climate change, they are not speaking as a ‘scientist’ but as a human being; a human being who is informed by ethical concerns. It would be perfectly logical for someone to recognise that climate change is happening while holding that there is no obligation on our current generation to do anything about it. We may find such an opinion objectionable but that is the crux of it, we have introduced values to the discussion in the form of ‘right and wrong’ and ‘good’. We have moved beyond the remit of science. Religions have had millennia to consider the human condition and what constitutes ‘good’ or ‘right’. For us to combat climate change we need not just the evidence that it is happening, but an idea of a better, or more ‘just’ world. Ethical systems are of course possible without religion, but discussion informed by religious concern can help to change ‘concern for our planet’ into the concern for and protection of ‘our common home‘.

Artemisworks photography, rosary and keyboard
Prayer beads on a keyboard.

Then there is a link between religion and science that brings us right back to Rag & Bone Coffee and St Matthew’s church yard. When St Matthew’s was built back in 1849, the area surrounding it was squalid, conditions were so bad, the area towards Victoria St. was known as the “Devil’s Acre“. The Dean of Westminster, and the new vicar of St Matthew’s recognised that, to help people out of poverty, drastic steps would need to be taken and one of these was to improve education. The Dean of Westminster died soon after St Matthew’s was built but his wife, Mary Buckland, who was also a palaeontologist, wanted to continue his work with the poor. In order to improve the conditions for those living in the slums in the Westminster area, “Mrs Buckland” established a coffee house on Old Pye St, that was cared for by the Revd. Richard Malone, vicar of St Matthew’s. The coffee house was a place where lectures were given and a library was set up. The church and people in the scientific world, worked together to help the poor of the area positively change their living conditions.

The coffee house eventually had to close but, perhaps it could be said that, in a sense, the presence of Rag & Bone coffee in the courtyard of St Matthew’s, continues this work. Although times have changed, and the area is no longer a slum, there is a different form of poverty, people who are time-poor and harassed, working in the offices that now surround the church. In this sense, Rag & Bone Coffee offers not just refreshment, but a brief time-out from the daily grind for the people who now pass by this space. As making coffee is both an art and a science, perhaps we can also say that here too, science and religion work together, with coffee, to make the world a better place.

Rag & Bone Coffee can be found in the courtyard of St Matthew’s Church, Great Peter St. SW1P 2BU.



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