Reality bites at Chin Chin Labs, Camden

Coffee grinder at Chin Chin Labs Camden

Nitro-brew? Not this week. Coffee and liquid nitrogen at Chin Chin Labs (a nitrogen dewar is on the table behind the coffee grinder).

It is true that Chin Chin Labs is not really a coffee-based café (although it does serve decently prepared, Monmouth roasted, coffee). Nonetheless, there is no question but that it has to be included as a cafe-physics review on Bean Thinking. Why? The answer is in the photo of the coffee grinder, though you may have to look carefully. You see, Chin Chin Labs is offering a different sort of café experience. Not coffee nor tea, but ice cream, indeed, Chin Chin Labs in Camden Lock advertises itself as the ‘future of ice-cream’ and the reason it does so is because here, all the ice cream is made with liquid nitrogen.

There are only 3-4 tables inside Chin Chin Labs which makes it more of a take-away bar than a sit down café. As you enter, a large dewar of liquid nitrogen is on your left, just behind the counter. Arranged behind this large dewar are a set of smaller dewars while on one of the ice cream preparation tables another (small) dewar sits with a pipe in it, ready for the nitrogen to be decanted out. If all these dewars are full, that is a lot of liquid nitrogen. The coffee is decent and prepared in the normal styles (espresso, Americano, cappuccino, latte), though this place is really not about the coffee (one of the staff expressed surprise that I’d ordered a coffee and not an ice cream). Next to the espresso machine were a set of glass beakers and glass containers as you would expect to find in a chemistry set, while the aprons worn by the staff had “Chin Chin Labs” written in a glittery, (futuristic or disco?), font.

Various dewars of nitrogen

Nitrogen, nitrogen everywhere…

There are many fun things that can be done with liquid nitrogen. From creating ice cream, through to shattering flowers and even to a possible solution for the energy storage problem (info here). Not to mention its important use as a coolant in all sorts of physics experiments and for biological storage. I have spent many hours decanting liquid nitrogen into buckets for basic experiments or into the first cooling stage of very strong magnets (such as are used in MRI machines).

However, at -196ºC, liquid nitrogen is not a liquid that can be treated flippantly. Although it can be fun, and handled correctly there is no problem, it can nonetheless be very dangerous. Which is why something else about Chin Chin Labs struck me quite hard. While there were glass beakers and containers that a cartoon may feature as part of a science ‘lab’, there was none of the equipment that you would actually expect to see in a real lab where liquid nitrogen is used. In our lab, oxygen monitors beep (annoyingly) every 60 seconds*, eye goggles and proper cryogenic-suitable gloves are stored in a highly visible position easily accessible to anyone in the lab. Risk assessments are prominently displayed so that everybody is aware of the risk of oxygen depletion (leading to suffocation) were the nitrogen dewars in the lab to fail and suddenly vent all that liquid nitrogen into nitrogen gas in the lab. These things are not fun, but are a necessary part of running a lab in which cryogenic liquids (including liquid nitrogen) are stored and used.

Ice cream at Chin Chin

The final result: vanilla nitrogen-ice-cream.

It is this contrast, between what is expected of a lab (glass beakers and complicated looking valves on the dewars) and what is in a lab (safety equipment and complicated looking valves on the dewars) that struck me. What do people, the public, café owners, think a lab looks like? What do they (you?) think a scientist looks like? Do we prefer indulging in our stereotyped ideas of a lab rather than think about the reality of life in a real science lab?

I am sure (or at least I hope) that the safety equipment, oxygen monitors etc. are present, but hidden under the counter, at Chin Chin Labs. It should always be possible to have fun with liquid nitrogen, whether in a lab or a café. And the ice cream is definitely worth trying (according to the person I visited Chin Chin Labs with). But, if you happen to pass by Camden Lock and try some nitrogen ice-cream, please do spend a minute to ask yourself, what you think a scientist, or a lab looks like. And do let me know what you think, I’d be interested to know.

Chin Chin Labs is at 49-50 Camden Lock Place, NW1 8AF

* In the event of the failure of a liquid nitrogen dewar, the oxygen in the room would be displaced. The resulting decrease in oxygen concentration can cause sleepiness, mental confusion or in the case of severe oxygen depletion, coma and death (more info here, opens as pdf). Oxygen monitors check the oxygen level in the room is at a safe level. The beep is annoying but tells us that the monitor still has battery and is checking the oxygen level in the room.

Life at the Coffee Jar

CoffeeJar_exteriorI had been waiting for an opportunity to try the Coffee Jar for a fair while. It is not that it is in a remote location, it is in fact situated on Parkway just five minutes walk from Camden or Primrose Hill. Nonetheless it feels as if it needed a special trip to get there (and, though this is pre-empting the end of this cafe-physics review, it does deserve such a ‘special trip’). Inside, there is seating at the window and running along one wall, and although it is not the smallest of cafés, it is certainly a ‘cosy’ one. This is not intended as an estate agent’s euphemism but instead to emphasise the additional meanings of this word to convey a warmth and friendliness about the space that the Coffee Jar definitely has. So far, we have been twice (see, the ‘special trip’ is worth it!). The coffee comes from Monmouth and so unsurprisingly, on the two occasions I had a coffee there (Americano and Soya Latte), it was very well done and enjoyable. At the front of the counter are a wide selection of home made cakes and cookies. While this presentation can be awkward for allergy sufferers (nutty cakes or cakes with loose nuts on top are placed side by side with the nut free options which could give contamination issues), the cookies were very good (more on the cookies later).

As befits the name, hand painted jars and coffee mugs decorate the end of the tables (and can be purchased should you wish). Individual art pieces decorate the walls while the window is painted with a scene that is somehow mirrored (shadowed?) in the ink prints on the take-away cups. All in all, there is plenty to notice in this “cosy” space. And so it took a fairly long time before I noticed the fish that was dangling above my head.
robot fisherman, robot fisherwoman, coffee jar camden

Apologies for the blurry photo but you can see the robot fisherman on the shelf.

Yes, this seemed an odd thing to me too, so I checked and indeed, a wooden fish was suspended on a string from something hidden on the shelf above my seat. At this point, an opportunity arose to go and sit at the window and so I was able to turn and look properly at the cause of the suspended wooden fish which was actually a toy robot. It just gets more surreal. But indeed, on the shelf above the seats against the wall was a toy robot fishing, a wooden fish hanging at the end of his (her?) line.

A robot that is fishing can prompt a large number of questions which seem to me to be at the intersection of science and philosophy. To what extent has automation improved our lives? Is it a good or a bad thing to use robots in jobs traditionally done by humans? Moving away from robots and towards computers, what about artificial intelligence? Much has been written about artificial intelligence in recent years. There is some angst about whether robots will come to take-over the world with an ability to think that far surpasses our human ability. Alternatively, there are people who look to artificial intelligence with the hope that it will help us drive cars or investigate pollution or all manner of other (to a greater or lesser degree) useful things. One test that has been suggested as a way of establishing whether any particular computer, or artificial intelligence, can think is the Turing test proposed in 1950 by Alan Turing. A prize set up to reward the first computer “chatbot” that could reliably mislead human judges into thinking that it was itself a human (the Loebner prize) has so far not been won (a prize is awarded each year for the most convincing chatbot but so far, none has been so reliably convincing as a human to win the top, “gold” prize).
soya latte at the coffee jar camden

Unusually I had a soya latte.

But the robot on the shelf was not represented as thinking but as fishing, an occupation that is associated with relaxation. This robot was not just thinking, it was taking time out to relax; it was represented as being alive and sentient. This prompts a rather different question to that of merely intelligence: At what point do we say that something is living? How can we define life? As could perhaps be expected, NASA has taken some time to consider this question. As they say on their website:

“Comparing the semantic task [of defining life] to the ancient Hindu story of identifying an elephant by having each of six blind men touch only the tail, the trunk, or the leg, what answer a biologist might give can differ dramatically from the answer given by a theoretical physicist.”

Which may make you wonder well, what would a theoretical physicist say about how we could define life? Erwin Schrödinger (1887-1961) had a very interesting, physics-based, definition of life. Although he is now perhaps more famous for his equation or his cat, in 1944 he wrote a book called “What is Life” (opens as pdf). To very briefly summarise, the argument goes that the tendency of all inanimate objects is towards equilibrium. A hot cup of coffee will lose heat to its immediate environment and so reach the same temperature as its surroundings, a small amount of blue food colouring at the bottom of a glass of water will eventually colour the entire glass a paler blue. To be alive is to defer this state of equilibrium for to achieve equilibrium is the same thing as death. Schrödinger argued that rather than merely consume energy, living things consumed negative entropy from their food-stuff. Entropy is a quantity introduced with the theory of thermodynamics. It is often taken as a measure of the order in a system (though there are caveats to that). The second law of thermodynamics states that for a closed system, the entropy of the system will either increase or stay the same. This suggests that to avoid equilibrium, or equivalently to avoid death, the living thing must consume order (or negative entropy) and somehow stave off this tendency to maximum entropy. To answer the objection that it would be easy to consume negative entropy by eating diamonds (which are highly ordered crystals) and so therefore that there has to be more to life than this, Schrödinger expanded on the thermodynamics of his argument. That bit gets quite technical and so is another reason that, if you are interested, it is worth getting hold of the book.


So to return to one of the first questions but phrase it in a slightly different way. Could a robot cookie maker replace the “home-made” cookies that were on offer in the Coffee Jar? It turns out that this is a subject that my often-times cafe-physics review companion (let’s call them J) has quite an opinion about. We visited the Coffee Jar twice partly because of the cookies! It seems to me that J would not have been impressed by the cookies were they robotically mass manufactured. There was something very appealing in the home made quality of them. So, there we go, one of the questions answered neither scientifically nor philosophically but on the very reasonable basis that home made cookies taste and look better. Do let me know if you agree if and when you visit the Coffee Jar.
The Coffee Jar is at 83 Parkway, NW1 7PP
“What is life?” Erwin Schrödinger, Cambridge University Press, first published 1944, my edition published 2013