Royal Society

The Corner One, Camden

20 Oval Road, Corner One

The Corner One in Camden

While browsing London’s Best Coffee, I came across a recommendation for The Corner One in Camden. The Corner One is tucked away on a side street near Camden Lock. What a great recommendation. The café itself is quite small and could be described as ‘cosy’. As the name suggests, it is on a corner, meaning that there are plenty of window seats on which to perch while enjoying your coffee. We ordered an Americano and a Flat White (Nude roastery) and couldn’t resist trying their muffins (which were very good). The atmosphere in the café was relaxed and, in a nice touch, dotted around the room were a variety of potted plants.

The strangely leaf-less plant at the Corner One

The strangely leaf-less plant at the Corner One

After a while, our attention was drawn to one plant in particular that had no leaves on it, although the flowers themselves seemed very healthy. This observation reminded us of the importance of plant life (and leaves) in the global environment and the fact that this week, diplomats from 200 countries are meeting in Geneva to edit the text agreed at the Peru climate summit. Their aim is to get the text into a form that could become a legally binding agreement at the climate talks to be held in Paris in December.

Plants are an essential part of the ecosystem of our planet. They absorb carbon dioxide and produce oxygen during photosynthesis. Another important contributor to the world’s oxygen supply are algae, as I became aware when I went to a recent Café Scientifique at the Royal Society (free and open to all). Dr Sinead Collins of Edinburgh University was describing her work on algae and what may happen to them as the oceans become more acidic. (The audio recording of the evening is available here). Ocean acidification is a consequence of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. As CO2 dissolves in the sea water, it forms carbonic acid thereby increasing the acidity of the oceans (for more information click here). This increased acidity affects the ocean’s plant and animal life in ways that we are only just starting to understand. The evening emphasised how important it is to address the issue of climate change before it is too late.

latte art, flat white art

What the plant lacked, the coffee made up for

During the meeting, Collins mentioned that she preferred the term “global weirding” to “global warming”. The term does indeed convey the fact that a large greenhouse effect would make the weather system highly unpredictable rather than merely ‘warmer’. We should expect odd weather if we continue to pump CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It is critical that the draft text currently being discussed in Geneva is agreed in Paris this year. We need a legally binding agreement to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Already our aim is very low; to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions to a quantity that would limit the global temperature increase to not more than 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels. Even so, this modest aim occasionally seems too high.

Let’s hope that the diplomats in Geneva this week and then the world leaders in Paris from 30 Nov – 11 Dec, agree to limit our CO2 emissions to that we can continue to enjoy our coffee.

The Corner One can be found at 20 Oval Road, NW1 7DJ.

Arepa and Co, Haggerston

Haggerston Canal

Arepa and Co are on the right hand side of this canal

Edmond Halley (of comet fame) was born in the London district of Haggerston in 1656. More recently, Arepa and Co a Venezuelan cafe located alongside the canal that runs through the district, has just celebrated its first birthday there. This cafe serves a variety of Venezuelan foods including the arepas of the name which are, apparently, a traditional corn cake that can be filled with a variety of fillings (more info here). There are seats both inside the cafe or outside, overlooking the canal. As it was the early afternoon and we’d already had lunch, we decided upon a coffee, a sugar cane lemonade and, to accompany it a plate of Tequenos de Chocolate. These unusual little pancakes filled with chocolate were delightful to enjoy with a cup of coffee and a view over the canal. Sitting back and enjoying this relaxing view, I noticed a tree on the roof of a building on the opposite side of the canal. Hanging on the tree were a number of glass shapes. As the wind blew, the different faces of the shapes caught the Sun. Looking towards these glass shapes, they appeared to change colour as the sunlight was refracted through them. A glinting rainbow array of light fell onto our side of the canal.

The story of the investigation of colour is a great example of how our preconceived ideas can influence the results that we think we see. Up until the seventeenth century, colour was viewed as a property of the surfaces of an object as opposed to “light” which was that which rendered objects visible. Therefore trying to explain how rainbows formed or light scattered from ornaments was a difficult task. Indeed, medieval philosophers (the term ‘scientist’ is a nineteenth century invention), considered that there were only seven colours: Yellow, orange, red, purple, green and black and white.

Prism associated with Isaac Newton

A late C17th prism in the British Museum collection, © Trustees of the British Museum

Work understanding colour as a refracted component of white light started with Marci in his 1648 work Thaumantias (another name for Iris, the Greek goddess of the rainbow) and continued with Newton’s famous experiments with prisms. Newton showed that a glass prism refracted the different colours of light by different amounts (resulting in a spectrum). If two prisms were placed at right angles to each other, the rainbow of light from the first prism recombined into white light emerging from the second. With the change in mindset that this brought about, phenomena such as the rainbow could be more easily explained.

Grecian, Coffee House, London Coffee House

The Devereux pub now stands on the site of the Grecian coffee house, a former meeting place of the Royal Society

Which brings me back to coffee. Back in the eighteenth century cafes (or coffee houses) were not just places to have coffee but places to engage in the latest philosophical, political or scientific discussion and debate. Scientists of the day regularly gave public lectures and demonstrations in coffee houses both as a way of entertainment and of education. One scientist who participated in this was Stephen Demainbray (1710-1782). Demainbray demonstrated Newton’s experiments and theories on colour to a coffee drinking audience. The models that he used to explain the refraction of light are now on display in the Science Museum which is well worth a visit if you are in London. In the present day, there are still cafes and coffee houses that try to do a similar thing (of showing fun science to a coffee drinking audience), although perhaps sadly there are fewer now than there were then. Two movements that are trying to put the science back into coffee houses are Science Cafes and Cafe Scientifique. Although not always held in cafes, both movements have the aim of combining interesting science with a cup of coffee or glass of wine. Somewhat poetically the next Cafe Scientifique in London is to be held, on the 9th December, at the Royal Society. It is poetic because back in the time of Newton, discussions with the Royal Society president (Newton) and other society members took place at the Grecian Coffee House.

Both “Science Cafes” and “Cafe Scientifique” have events worldwide. It is worth taking a look at their websites to see if there is an event near you. Why not pop along and see what you can find out while having a cup of coffee?


Sources used:

The Rainbow Bridge, Raymond L Lee, Jr and Alistair B Fraser, Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002

The Nature of Light, Vasco Ronchi, Heinemann, 1970

London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1963