Simone Weil

Light and gravity at Tab x Tab, Westbourne Grove

drinks in ceramic mugs, Westbourne Grove

A soya hot chocolate and my black coffee at Tab x Tab

Earlier this summer, a new café opening on Westbourne Grove attracted a lot of attention. “Tab x Tab” quickly received reviews from Brian’s Coffee Spot (who noted the unusual espresso machine), Bean There at and Doubleskinnymacchiato. Bean There at also suggested that there should be plenty to ponder at Tab x Tab when I finally got the chance to get there. And so, a trip to this café had been on the agenda for a fair while.

Wandering into the café, it seemed exactly as described by the reviews: clean, sharp interiors in a modern building. It was fairly crowded when we arrived just after lunch and so we ordered before taking a seat at the bar (two of the few seats left). I had a long black while my fellow imbiber had a soya hot chocolate. The drinks arrived in those distinctive mugs mentioned by doubleskinnymacchiato (and pictured above). As we had just had lunch, on this occasion we didn’t check the edibles on offer but with plenty of other reviews of the coffee and the cake, I’m sure that you’ll find recommendations there (I understand the avocado on toast with cashew nut is well worth trying).

Graphite, double layer graphene, stacked hexagons

Plant on two slates at Tab x Tab, Westbourne Grove

Sitting down to enjoy our drinks, the first thing to notice was that Bean There at was absolutely right. Despite the slightly minimal and elegant decoration, there were plenty of things dotted around that were slightly quirky. Firstly there was the plant that had been placed on two hexagons of slate that had been ever so slightly displaced from each other, presumably for aesthetic effect. Could this link to graphene and graphite with their strong intra-layer bonding and weak interlayer bonding (so the hexagons of carbon in graphite slide over each other)?

Then there was the selection of items for sale that also provided food for thought. Books and other items from the School of Life, something to think about as you stop with your coffee perhaps. In the other direction, on the counter top, a couple of Venus Fly Traps were waiting for their lunch. There is so much we have yet to learn about the symbiotic relationships between plants and animals and especially between plants and fungi. As we looked further around the café, there was something else a little odd. Just as the name “Tab” was written both the correct way and upside down in the window, so the plants in the hanging baskets were hanging upside down.

which will win, gravity or light

Plants hanging upside down in the window at Tab x Tab

This seemed a bit strange in itself. Plants have a tendency to move upwards towards the light. This behaviour of plants (and trees in particular) provides one way to identify which way is south when walking in the country without a compass¹. It is odd to see a plant growing downwards and suggests that the plants in the window are regularly rotated so that they don’t try to reach up. As Simone Weil wrote “Two forces rule the universe: light and gravity”². Which would win in the end? To be fair, Weil was not referring to the light that streamed through the windows in Tab x Tab giving the plants the force they need to move upwards. Nonetheless, whether one is thinking literally or analogously, it is an interesting question what pulls us down, what brings us up?

There is a story that Newton arrived upon his idea of universal gravitation by contemplating a falling apple. Considering that the plants were approximately 2m above the floor level, and using the fact that the acceleration due to gravity, g,  is 10 m/s², if the plants were to fall from their hanging position, they would take:

s = ½gt²

t = 0.6 seconds

to fall and smash to the ground*. While this brings to mind Newton’s experiments dropping pigs bladders filled with liquid mercury from the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, it is worth instead thinking more about the universal nature of the gravitational force. This is of course what made Newton’s idea of gravity different from the theories that had preceded it. People had known that if an apple fell from a tree (or a plant fell from its hanging basket) it would fall to Earth. What was key to Newton’s idea was that what applied to the apple, applied to all other masses too. The same maths that could be used to calculate how fast a plant dropped, could be applied to the Moon. So, if this was the case, could we calculate the orbital distance of the Moon in the time it took us to enjoy a coffee at Tab x Tab? We know that the Moon’s orbital period is τ = 27.3 days (2.36 x 10^6 seconds) so assuming that the gravitational force acting on the Moon is balanced by the centripetal force, we can equate the two:

Gravity: F = GMm/r²

Centripetal: F = mv²/r

Where, G is the gravitational constant (6.67 x 10^11 Nm²/kg²), M is the mass of the Earth (5.97 x 10^24 Kg), m is the mass of the Moon and r the moon’s orbital distance (which is what we want to calculate). If we assume that the Moon travels in a circular orbit (not quite true but not a bad first approximation), then we know the speed, v, of the moon in terms of the orbit period, it is just:

v = 2πr/τ

A bit of re-arrangement and some plugging in of values leads to a back-of-the-envelope value for the Moon’s orbital distance of 383 000 Km. A value that does not compare badly at all with the average distance of the Moon given by NASA as 384 400 Km.

Perhaps if we’d stayed for an additional flat white we could have refined the calculation somewhat and so obtained a value closer to reality. Nevertheless, the fact that the force that is pulling the plant down at Tab x Tab is the same as is pulling the Moon around the Earth, and that we can quickly check this (and get an approximately correct answer to our calculation), is one of those ‘wow’ moments in physics. Realising the universality, and elegance, of certain mathematical relations. So perhaps it is entirely appropriate that this thought train of mathematical elegance was prompted by the quirky but aesthetic elegance you will find at Tab x Tab.

Tab Tab can be found at 14-16 Westbourne Grove, W2 5RH

¹ The Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs, Tristan Gooley, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014

² Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil, Routledge (1995 vsn)

*Although you could use a more accurate value for g, the error on the estimate of the height of the plants makes such precision potentially misleading. The value 0.6 seconds is absolutely a back-of-the-envelope, calculation.

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