cafe with good nut knowledge Coffee review Observations Science history slow

From Beethoven to Pythagoras via Kin Cafe, Fitzrovia

Kin Cafe Fitzrovia
Kin Cafe on Foley St

I had been waiting for an opportunity to try Kin Cafe in Fitzrovia for a while. Having followed them on Twitter, I had been tempted by the large selection of great-looking vegetarian and vegan food choices tweeted almost daily. Although I’m no longer a vegetarian, appetising meat-free meals are always appealing. So it had been on my “to try” list for a long time (preferably for lunch). However, sometimes things don’t work out quite the way you had initially hoped and so it was late afternoon by the time we ended up at Kin, sadly no lunch then. So we settled on an Americano, soya hot chocolate and a slice of Butternut and ginger cake. The coffee (from Clifton Coffee) was very fruity and full of character, highly enjoyable while sitting in the window overlooking the street outside. The cake meanwhile deserves a special mention. Not only was the cake very good, the helpful staff at Kin were very confident in their knowledge that this cake was nut-free and they also ensured that the new member of staff (being trained) used a new cake slice to serve it. Extra ‘points’ for a nut-allergy aware café and definitely a tick in the “cafes with good nut knowledge box”.

As we sat with our drinks, one of Beethoven’s quartets was playing through the loudspeakers. For me, Beethoven being played in the background is a bonus for any café but it did, perhaps, mean that I was less sociable than normal with my frequent companion in these reviews; the quartets are too absorbing. I do hope the hot chocolate made up for it.

Interior of Kin cafe
Tables are supported by struts forming triangles. But this is not the Pythagorean link.

Inside the café, tables along the wall were each stabilised by a diagonal support. A practical arrangement that had the visual effect of forming a triangle with the wall. While this did make me think about force-balancing and Pythagoras, this is not the link to Pythagoras alluded to in the title. No, instead the connection goes back to the Beethoven and the links between music and mathematics. Perhaps we no longer immediately think of music and mathematics as being particularly connected, after all one is an ‘art’ and the other a ‘science’. But music and mathematics have, traditionally, been so inextricably linked that, as Susan Wollenberg wrote in ‘Music and Mathematics’* “… it is their separation that elicits surprise”.

Some of the links between music and mathematics are explored in this TED-Ed talk about the maths to be found in Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. This part of the link between music and mathematics comes in the relation between what is known as consonant and dissonant notes. The first part of the Moonlight Sonata is made up of triplets of notes that sound good to our ears when they are played together. As Pythagoras is said to have discovered (see link here, opens as pdf), there is an interestingly simple relation between notes that are consonant with each other. Whether you look at the frequency of the notes or the length of a string required to play them, the ratio of two consonant notes seems to be a simple number ratio.

For example, the A of an oboe has a frequency of 440 Hz*. The A one octave higher is at 880 Hz, a factor of 2. If we took instead a series of notes of frequency f, then we could find a series of consonant notes at f:2f:3f. But now, remembering that octaves are separated by a factor of 2 and that they ‘sound good’ together, this will mean that the ratio of frequencies f:1.5f:2f will also sound good. This set of frequencies just happens to coincide with the C-G-C’ chord that forms the basis of many guitar based pieces of music. As you continue looking at these simple number ratios you can start to build a set of notes that eventually forms a scale.

Blue plaque Foley St
The artist Fuseli once lived diagonally opposite Kin Cafe. J. James notes that Fuseli was part of the artistic revolution that was paralleled by Beethoven and the Romantics in the musical sphere**.

But the links go deeper than this. In the same book “Music and Mathematics”, JV Field wrote “ Ancient, medieval and Renaissance times, to claim that the order of the universe was ‘musical’ was to claim that it was expressible in terms of mathematics.” Indeed, Kepler looked for these musical harmonies in the maths of the planetary system. Although he found no ‘harmonies’ in the ratio of the periods of the planets then known, he did find musical scales in the ratios of the speeds of the planets (measured when they were closest to the Sun, at the perihelion, and furthest from the Sun, at the aphelion). Other simple number ratios can be found when we look to different regions of the Solar System. The periods of three of the Galilean moons of Jupiter for example have the ratio 1:2:4 (Io:Europa:Ganymede). While we would no longer describe these patterns as reflecting the harmony of the Universe (see here instead for current understanding), perhaps we ought to ponder the next sentence that Field wrote in the chapter on Musical Cosmology:

We still believe [that the universe is expressible in terms of mathematics] now. Indeed, mathematical cosmology has proved so powerful that it is perhaps difficult to take a sufficiently cold hard look at the metaphysical basis on which it rests. On the other hand, the explicitly musical cosmologies derived more directly from the Ancient tradition seem sufficiently fantastic to invite instant questioning of their underlying metaphysics…

One to consider next time you happen to wander into Kin Cafe, or another café playing such mathematical composers as Beethoven.

Kin Cafe can be found at 22 Foley St, W1W 6DT

*Music and Mathematics, Edited by J. Fauvel, R. Flood, R. Wilson, Oxford University Press (2003)

** The Music of the Spheres, J. James, Copernicus (Springer-Verlag), (1993)

Lastly, a video of Wilhelm Kempff playing Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. I would really recommend playing it twice, the first time to listen only, the second to watch while Kempff plays. His performance is fascinating.


General slow

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