Aeropress bubbles on one side, coffee experiments
Do the bubbles always (often) form on the opposite side of the Aeropress to the hand you used to pour the water from the kettle?

Last week, I revealed the results of an experiment into an odd observation while brewing coffee in my Aeropress: why was it that the bubbles formed on the opposite side to the hand I used to pour the water from the kettle? On the face of it, it was an easy experiment, with a simple explanation and a fairly clear set of results. But behind this story is a series of decisions and psychology that can illustrate, on a small level, some of how experimental science is done. It’s not for nothing that there’s the saying, the devil is in the details.

Theory, experiment and the impartial observer

There can be an erroneous idea about the progress of science, repeated even among people who should realise the fallacy. A theory, with testable predictions is proposed, which is subjected to experiment by a series of dispassionate observers in order to provide evidence that either supports the theory or disproves it. We dehumanise the theoreticians and experimentalists to observers who can emotionally disconnect and observe the results from an objective distance.

There are countless examples against this within the history of science (both for theories that have now been rejected but also for theories that we still consider good models) but I want to keep to the example that we can all have in front of us in our kitchen: that of the bubbles in an Aeropress.

With the Aeropress it was an odd experimental result that prompted a theory that then fitted the odd observation. The theory came with some extra ‘predictions’, but theory and experiment evolved together. Again, there are examples of this in the history of science but the experiment prompted the theory that prompted further experimental tests.

The problem then is that the experimenter (in this case me) was well aware of the theoretical predictions. Could I dispassionately, and completely subconsciously, pour a kettle as I had always poured the kettle, or would part of me, however much my conscious was opposed, change how I poured the kettle subsequent to my idea of how the bubbles formed?

As with many experiments, some results are not so clear as others. Are the bubbles on this coffee evenly distributed or weighted to one side? How would you count them?

For the case of the experiment with the Aeropress, this remains an open question. Generally though, many experimentalists will aim to try to reduce conscious or unconscious biases by putting procedures in place to prevent them coming in. When Isaac Newton and John De Saguliers investigated the role of air resistance on falling masses from inside the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, they dropped them from a trap door system. This meant that the masses (which in the first instance included glass balls filled with mercury) fell at the same time; the quiet suspicions of the experimentalist investigators could not influence the results. It created a mess on the floor of that great Cathedral, but it did eliminate this component of bias from the experiment. You can read more about their experiment here.

A need for peer review

Assuming that we are collecting data in a neutral way, what happens then? On the face of it, seeing if the bubbles appeared on the left hand side or the right hand side should be an easy question to answer. And in some cases, such as the pictures that I chose to illustrate my post about the results last week, the answer is clear. But are those photos representative of the whole data? And, for more ambiguous photos, such as the one shown here, how do you define which bubbles to count?

One problem here is that each photo is very slightly different. Either the angle is different, or there is steam on the lens, or the focus is not there. But even so, sometimes it is harder to see all the bubbles on an image. For this experiment I defined a minimum bubble size (which you can see as the white square in the image) which I used to decide which features on the surface of the coffee to ignore: after all, when viewing the image, it is not clear whether items smaller than this are bubbles or just a different colouration to the coffee crema.

You may notice that I did not mention this detail in last week’s post, but one of the images includes the square. This is one of those things that would (most likely) be picked up in what is known as ‘peer review’. When we write results up and submit it to a journal for publishing, the journal will typically send the paper out to 2 or 3 ‘referees’. These are people, who ideally work on similar experiments, who will read the paper and think “hang on a minute, what if it is not the bubbles but the bubble size that shows an effect, how have these authors counted the bubbles?” The example is admittedly a somewhat trite one, but the point is that the paper is read by someone who also does this sort of experiment and knows where problems can be encountered. The ideal is not to trip the authors up, or to show that they did anything wrong, but to see things from a new angle, a different set of obsessions and so ask the original authors to address points that improves the paper in the sense that we can all start to see what is going on*.

Look carefully at this image. Can you see the white square towards the top left? This was the minimum ‘bubble’ size counted in the initial experiment.

Peer review also of course helps to stop the publication of results that are wrong, or statistically invalid (see below). We therefore need some form of peer review in order that we can be collectively, as a society, happy that this science is being done robustly. So if you see a newspaper report that “the study, which has not yet been peer reviewed…” treat it with a very large pinch of salt and please don’t tweet it (unless you happen to also research that area and so can read the paper as if you are writing it).


We have attempted to eliminate our biases, we have been open and transparent about our methodology, what could possibly go wrong now? It is in not taking enough data. Say I made a coffee pouring from my right hand and the bubbles formed on the left, then with my left hand and the bubbles formed on the right, we can know that this is not enough to be sure that the bubbles ‘always’ form on the alternative side. For that bit of the experiment I made 22 coffees. Not enough to be statistically certain (more on that here), but probably enough for an observation on a coffee blog.

But the bit I want to focus on here is the part of the experiment where I counted the number of bubbles versus the bubble size. I was investigating any similarities with a study that measured thousands of bubbles over 225 images documenting 14 events. I counted the number of bubbles on one small portion of one coffee that may not be representative of the coffee generally. Can we accept that as a valid procedure?

While I may not have counted enough bubbles here, one experiment (that can involve coffee) where there certainly were enough objects counted was in the determination of the mechanism behind Brownian motion. Brownian motion is the phenomenon by which small particles of dust or bits of coffee move in random directions on the surface of your cup. It happens because the molecules within the water of the coffee hit against the dust and impart a small momentum to the particles. Because there are many molecules moving in all sorts of directions, the resultant movement appears random. If we look through a microscope we can see the particles moving but there is no way that we could see the molecules that move them. Back in the nineteenth century this became an exceedingly controversial topic: could you form a scientific theory for a phenomenon (such as Brownian motion) which relied on assuming an underlying reality (molecules) that you could not hope to see or measure directly? The question was (partly) resolved only in the early twentieth century with the very careful experiments of Jean Perrin (you can read more about Perrin’s experiments and their relation to coffee here). When Perrin summarised his results he wrote:

View of St Paul's Cathedral London
St Paul’s Cathedral in London. The site of an
experiment by Isaac Newton and John de Saguliers in 1710.

“I have counted about 11, 000 granules in different regions of different preparations to obtain the figure 21.2 of the first column.”

Which is slightly more than the number of bubbles I counted last week.

A way forward – truth and integrity

What does this mean for science and how science is done and reported, especially in this era of rapid research and in which everyone has an opinion? Is science discredited by the fact that we are humans, and not fully dissociated and objective, when we do it?

Although I ran out of space to discuss Michael Polanyi’s comments on statistics and pattern recognition, he does have something extremely relevant to say about the progress of science. For Polanyi, how we do science and how we behave as a society were (and are) intimately linked. He considered that for science to prosper, we needed “fairness and tolerance” in discussion. By fairness he meant the requirement to state your case, your experimental result or theory, openly, separating fact, from opinion and emotional involvement and openly allowing them each to be critiqued. By tolerance he meant that we needed to listen to the other, even while we disagree, in order to see where they may have a point. He linked this behaviour within science to the behaviour required of the public in listening (and sharing) science. As he said:

Fairness and tolerance can hardly be maintained in a public contest unless its audience appreciates candour and moderation and can resist false oratory. A judicious public with a quick ear for insincerity of argument is therefore an essential partner in the practise of free controversy…

Science and society move together.

An invitation

And so an invitation. Keeping in mind the idea of Polanyi about honesty and integrity in discussion, I would like to invite any reader of this blog to become a peer reviewer of the experiment reported last week. Please go and enjoy a coffee, carefully preparing and noticing your brewing technique and then work out how you would have made the experiment and tested any results. Perhaps you have a different theory that would require a slightly different counting method than the one chosen? Perhaps you think that more experiments are necessary? Become my peer reviewer! Feel free to comment below, or on Facebook or Twitter. Or, if you would prefer, email me through the contact form here. Bear in mind I am human, and so I will react to your report. But if you and I keep can Polanyi’s warning in focus, perhaps we can together improve our understanding of the science behind bubbles in an Aeropress. And, by extension, improve our understanding of how science, and society, can work.

I genuinely do look forward to reading your comments.

*I have worked in academia long enough to know that this is not always how the peer review process works in practise. There are many cases where peer review falls short of the ideal, for all sorts of reasons. But it remains a necessary part of the publication process as many referees (and authors) do try to approach the process in this way. Obviously emotion gets in the way when we receive the referee’s report initially, or, on the other side, if we think that the authors have seriously misunderstood their experiment, but if we take a few days to sit with the report/paper, we do try to get towards the ideal.

A language problem?

Bob Ward, Obama quote, climate change

The last generation: our urgent need to communicate effectively.

The beverage was prepared by pushing water (at 94ºC and 1.0 MPa) through a pellet of coffee beans ground to an average of 10 – 100 μm diameter. The pellet had been compacted (“tamped”) using a variable pressure as described in ref [1]. Following a manual transfer of the cup to the table, the drink was consumed at a temperature of 55ºC. Fruity overtones were noted.

Would you rush to try this coffee?

Last week I wrote about the effects of climate change on coffee and how climate scientists are trying to reach out and communicate more about the science behind global warming. But there was a crucial question left un-answered, just how do we communicate? Do we all speak the same language or is the dry impersonal prose of science a hindrance to discussion?

To start with the encouraging news. It turns out that scientists are a pretty trusted bunch. In a recent survey 79% of the British public trusted scientists to tell the truth (compared with 21% for politicians). Part of the problem for politicians may be the language that they tend to use, “if I am honest…”, “to be fair…” etc, are apparently statements that haemorrhage trust. These are not statements that you will hear made by scientists. The language of science is cold and dry, utterly devoid of the personal. So, coupled with the results of the survey, it is tempting to think that we should continue to use our cold and impersonal language when communicating things like climate change. It seems that this works.

Steam, scattering, colour

How would you describe your coffee? Do those who read your description read it in the sense that you wrote it?

Only we would be wrong, the language that we use is (apparently) not helping us to communicate and we need to change it (as the meeting was told in an impassioned talk by Bob Ward). An average scientific paper for example is designed to convey exactly what we did, how we did it and to eliminate any possible element of confusion. Ideally, we would write a scientific paper so that someone else could read it, understand precisely what we have done and repeat the experiment under very similar conditions. In this context, our dry language can work very well but does it work generally when communicating results more widely?

To see the problem, compare the (scientifically written) coffee review that started this article with an extract from a recent review of Silhouette Cheapside by Brian’s coffee spot:

The coffee offering’s simple: there’s a single-origin espresso from Notes, a Brazilian Cachoeirinha during my visit. As an espresso this was gorgeous: fruity and complex, it rewarded me with every sip, holding its own right to the end. I also tried it as a flat white, which was very smooth and surprisingly different, the coffee and milk perfectly complimenting each other.

A visit to Cheapside may be imminent.

So this is the problem, while the scientific language may convey accurately what was consumed, it can’t convey it fully. Language that communicates more generally includes details about how we feel: “gorgeous”, “rewarded me with every sip”, “surprisingly different”. The language used in Brian’s coffee spot in no way detracts from an accurate description of the espresso or the flat white. Arguably your idea of the drinks that Brian sampled at Silhouette is far better formed in your mind than the idea of the espresso described by the scientific-language description at the start of this post. Can we extend this reasoning to scientific descriptions of the science of climate change and its likely effects?

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Our common home.
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Perhaps you could imagine yourself in the position of a climate scientist: your research is showing you that the planet that you live on is likely to suffer significant change as a result of something that we humans are doing but can also do something about. I would guess that you are likely to get quite worked up about it. Wouldn’t it come across better if scientists were to use some of that emotion in how they communicate? Wouldn’t it convey our meaning more effectively?

Immediately though we come up against this issue of trust. Does the cold and dry scientific language somehow better communicate that the argument is evidence based? In this line of reasoning, subjective descriptions would be ok for things like describing a good coffee but not ok for describing climate change. And yet I can’t help feel that even here there is a problem. The philosopher of science Michael Polanyi argued that “Fairness in discussion has been defined as an attempt at objectivity, i.e. preference for truth even at the expense in losing force of argument”. Our “preference for truth” must include the fact that we have an emotional investment in the argument. It is our planet that we are destroying. Indeed, attempts to hide this emotional investment may even lead others to suspect climate scientists of other, more nefarious, secondary motives (financial gain, global conspiracy). However there is an important caveat on Polanyi’s argument, he writes: “[f]airness and tolerance can hardly be maintained in a public contest unless its audience appreciates candour and moderation and can resist false oratory…”.

screenshot of tweet from Digitalnun

A thought provoking tweet from @Digitalnun – science communication goes both ways.

Which brings me to a last point. A recent tweet by Digitalnun posed a question on related lines: does careless reading or careless writing lead to more problems? What we write is not necessarily what people read and if we allow emotion to enter into the cold language of science then we may increase the likelihood of misinterpretation (whether deliberate or not). Will those who read our attempts to communicate science with full honesty be able to resist false oratory, twisting our words to imply a ‘war’ or financial interest? Which is more appropriate, to remain dispassionate and potentially unconvincing or to be more honest in our discussion at the possible expense of losing trust? It’s not a question which seems to have an easy answer. What do you think? Do scientists have a language problem? Would you trust a discussion on climate change more or less if you thought that the scientist actually cared about the planet too? Let me know, either in the comments below, on Facebook or on Twitter.

[1] is hyperlinked above but if you are in the habit of scrolling down to look at the references, you can find the article about tamping in “coffee research” published here.

The Polanyi quotes are from “Science, Faith and Society” by Michael Polanyi, University of Chicago Press, 1964 (2nd edition)


Pulp fiction in KL?

Freshly roasted coffee, Pulp, Papa Palheta, KL

Coffee on the cutting machine at Pulp

There have been a few great cafés opening up recently in Kuala Lumpur, including Pulp by Papa Palheta in Lucky Gardens. However the space that Pulp occupies is unrivalled: The old cutting room of the Art Printing Works. It really is geek meets hipster in this café, with old electric fittings and the original paper cutting machine housed alongside a fantastic range of freshly roasted coffee.

There is a great range of coffee on offer too. From pour-overs to espresso based drinks and cold brew, Pulp is a great place to discover a wide range of coffees. I had a pour over Ethiopian (Suke Quto) that was beautifully presented with tasting notes ready for me to enjoy. A nice touch was that the cup had been pre-warmed so I got no condensation around the rim of the mug when I filled the cup with coffee. The coffee itself was very fruity, presumably very lightly roasted in order to retain the fruity notes of the beans. (On a second visit I enjoyed a long black which was also very fruity though less so than the pour-over).

pourover at Pulp, Papa Palheta, KL

Taking time with a beautifully presented pour-over

Although there are plenty of seats in this café, on both occasions we visited it was crowded and hard to find a seat. It seems that this is a very popular spot for good coffee in KL, so do be prepared to share a table! Indeed, one of these ‘tables’ is formed from the old cutting machine itself, the machine that used to prepare the paper used for newspapers and books. Sipping coffee here, in a place steeped in the history of printing, it seemed only natural to consider the role in our current society of fake news and whether there is anything that we can do about it.

The issue of fake news or of exaggerated or incomplete news stories is not just limited to issues surrounding the recent US election. Reporting our experimental results honestly and our theories thoroughly underpins all scientific research. However, as funding decisions and employment prospects increasingly depend on publications in prestigious journals, question marks can start to hover over each scientist’s paper (the “publish or perish” problem). Does reporting a result honestly include waiting for that last result (that could contradict or delay the ‘story’ thereby making publication in “high impact” journals such as Nature less probable)? Do we read the papers of others thinking that they have reported everything as truthfully and fully as possible or do we shrug as their next paper (in a lower impact journal) reveals the ‘caveats’ on their previous work? The chemist and scientific philosopher, Michael Polanyi wrote in 1946:

… Suppose scientists were in the habit of regarding most of their fellows as cranks or charlatans. Fruitful discussion between them would become impossible…. The process of publication, of compiling text books, of teaching juniors, of making appointments and establishing new scientific institutions would henceforth depend on the mere chance of who happened to make the decision. It would then become impossible to recognise any statement as a scientific proposition or to describe anyone as a scientist. Science would become practically extinct.“∗

Pulp, Papa Palheta KL

Where else could you see all these old electrical boxes?

Although we are hopefully still very far from that scenario, it is fairly clear that similar levels of trust are required for our society to function well too. For our society to flourish, these same standards of integrity are required of our press (and indeed of ourselves if we publish – or share – articles online). The perception that our society is moving into an era where fake news is as valid as proper investigative journalism has led to some calling ours a “post-truth” era. However, as Emmi Itäranta has argued, we should endeavour to avoid calling our times “post-truth”, in part because the term itself is not neutral. Our words and language matter and when we use the term we contribute to the idea that truth is no longer meaningful.

Such thoughts remind us of our own responsibility and contributions to society. If we don’t want fake news to influence politics, we need to be careful what we share or publish online. From our language to our values, we need to behave as if truth matters. And, to me at least, it seems that enjoying a coffee can help us with that. Stopping to appreciate the moment as we savour our well prepared coffee, we can step-back from the “retweet” or “share” button and think, is this evidence based and true or else, what is it that I gain by sharing this?

It strikes me that cafés such as Pulp, with their mix of great coffee and interesting surroundings are perfect spaces in which to slow down and think rather than react and retweet. Perhaps that is what we need for 2017, more time contemplating in cafés, less time on social media. Let’s hope for some quiet time ahead.

Pulp by Papa Palheta is at 29-01 Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,

∗Michael Polanyi “Science, Faith and Society”, Oxford University Press, 1946


Beautiful coffee

beauty in a coffee, coffee beauty

Interference patterns on bubbles in a coffee cup.

In the UK Science Museum’s library there is a book, written in 1910, by Jean Perrin called “Brownian Movement and Molecular reality”. To some extent, there is nothing surprising about the book. It describes a phenomenon that occurs in your coffee cup and the author’s own attempts to understand it. Nonetheless, this little book is quite remarkable. It is perhaps hard, from our perspective in 2016, to imagine that at the time of Perrin’s work, the idea of the existence of molecules in water was still controversial. It was even debated whether it was legitimate to hypothesise the existence of molecules (which were, almost by definition, un-detectable). However, none of that is really relevant to the question confronting today’s Daily Grind. Today, the question is how can this book help us to find beauty in a coffee cup?

What does a one hundred year old book have to do with finding beauty in a coffee cup? Perrin received the Nobel Prize in 1926 for his work establishing the molecular origins of Brownian motion and, associated with it, his determination of the value of Avogadro’s constant. It is perhaps why he wrote the book. (The experiment that he used to do this is described in a previous Daily Grind article that can be found here.) It is in his description though, both of the theory and the experiments involving Brownian motion that this little book is relevant for today. One word repeatedly crops up in Perrin’s description of Brownian motion. It comes up when he describes the theory. It comes up when he describes other people’s experiments. It comes up when he describes bits of the maths of the theory. The word? Beautiful*.

Michael Polanyi

Michael Polanyi,
by Elliott & Fry, vintage print, (1930s),
Thanks to National Portrait Gallery for use of this image.

Throughout history, many scientists have recognised, and worked for, the beauty that they see in the science around them. In a 2007 TED talk, Murray Gell-Mann said

“What is striking and remarkable is in fundamental physics a beautiful or elegant theory is more likely to be right than a theory that is inelegant.”

So it is interesting that, although we may agree that scientific theories can be “beautiful” or “elegant”, we do not seem to have a way of quantifying what precisely beauty is. It is similar for those things that are beautiful that we find in every day life. The beauty of a sunset, or the way the light catches the ripples on the surface of a lake, these are things that we recognise as beautiful without being able to articulate what it is about them that makes them so. Instead we recognise beauty as something that strikes us when we encounter it. Elaine Scarry has talked about this as a “de-centering” that we experience when we come across beauty. Scarry writes that, when we encounter the beautiful:

“It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world”.¹

It is therefore quite concerning that she goes on to suggest that conversations about beauty (of paintings, poems etc) have been banished from study in the humanities “…we speak about their beauty only in whispers.”¹ This does not seem to have happened yet in science where it is still common to hear about a beautiful equation or an elegant experiment. But is there a creeping ‘ideological utilitarianism” in the scientific community? According to Michael Polanyi ²

“Ideological utilitarianism censures Archimedes today for speaking lightly of his own practical inventions and his passion for intellectual beauty, which he expressed by desiring his grave to be marked by his most beautiful geometrical theorem, is dismissed as an aberration.”²

While we may recoil from this sentiment, what do we write (or expect to read) in grant applications, scientific papers, popular science or even scientific outreach? How often is the utility of a piece of research emphasised rather than its elegance?

Earth from space, South America, coffee

Does an appreciation of beauty help with a wider understanding of justice and environmental concerns?
The Blue Marble, Credit, NASA: Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler

Another interesting question to ponder is whether our ability to appreciate (and discuss) beauty has wider ramifications. As many others have argued before her, Scarry suggests that the appreciation of the beauty in the world connects with our sense of justice¹. Recently the Pope too, in his great environmental encyclical, Laudato Si’ wrote³:

“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.”

Could it be true that part of the motivation that we need to change our ecological habits or stimulate our search for wider social justice is enhanced by our ability to slow down and appreciate the beautiful, wherever and whenever we find it?

So to return to our coffee. Is there something, anything, about our coffee or our tea that gives us such a radical de-centering experience? Can we, like Jean Perrin, appreciate the subtle beauty of the molecular interactions in our cup? Do we appreciate the moment as we prepare our brew? Or are we ideological utilitarians, seeing in our cup just another caffeine fix?


* Technically, the book in the Science Museum Library is a translation of Perrin’s work by Frederick Soddy. It is possible that it is Soddy’s translation rather than Perrin’s work itself that uses the word ‘beautiful’ repeatedly. It would be interesting to read Perrin’s book in its original French.

I would like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the Science Museum Library for being such a valuable resource and to the staff at the library for being so helpful.


“Brownian movement and molecular reality”, Jean Perrin, translated by F. Soddy, Taylor and Francis Publishers (1910)

1 Elaine Scarry, “On Beauty and Being Just”, Duckworth Publishers, 2006

2 Michael Polanyi, “Personal Knowledge, towards a post-critical philosophy” University of Chicago Press, 1958

3 §215 Laudato Si’, Pope Francis, 2015

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