slow down and notice

Communities at Wilton Way

exterior of Wilton Way, Hackney Coffee

Wilton Way cafe on Wilton Way

There are two things that may strike you as you walk past Wilton Way café. The first is the prominent La Marzocco espresso machine on the counter. The second is the “ON AIR” sign in the corner next to the window. Indeed, it is best to look out for these two as there didn’t seem to be any other sign indicating that this café was the Wilton Way cafe, home to the London Fields Radio that is broadcast from here (hence the “on air” sign). In the late afternoon, the café offered some shade on a sunny day and so we popped in for a tea, though there is seating on a bench outside should you wish to enjoy the Sun. Although this website is supposed to be about coffee (which is roasted by Climpson & Sons), sometimes a fresh mint tea is what is needed. This particular mint tea was very refreshing with plenty of mint leaves in the cup. Sadly though, in what seems to be a common pattern at the moment, this was another café at which there were few cakes on offer, presumably as it was late afternoon by the time we visited. However, what is sad for the mind is perhaps good for the waistline, we’ll have to revisit in the morning for the cakes next time.

Corrugated iron supported the counter while the (plentiful) seats inside the café appeared to be made of recycled wood and boxes. Interestingly, this is mentioned in the description of the Wilton Way café on the London Fields Radio website, apparently the interior was designed to be a mix of modern and reclaimed materials. Choosing a seat at the back allowed us to survey the space and people-watch while sipping the tea. On the counter was an old-style Casio cash register while in the far corner at the front of the café, the microphone and broadcasting equipment stood waiting to be used for the London Fields Radio.

the broadcasting equipment at the WW cafe Hackney

London Fields Radio, broadcast from Wilton Way cafe

In the book “Radar, how it all began” the author, Jim Brown reminisced about how he had played with a crystal radio set as a child in the 1920s¹. Many scientists can remember making their own radio sets as children (or indeed as adults). It seems playing with things, taking them apart and building them again is part of the personal-history of many scientists and engineers (particularly experimental ones whether they be ‘professional’ scientists or not). The Lunar Society (which was active at the end of the eighteenth century and into the early nineteenth) featured a group of keen “tinkerers”. These were people who experimented with nature and invented new devices in order to explore their understanding of the world. Though each of them were only doing science ‘on the side’ as they each had other day-jobs, individuals within the group did make some important contributions to our understanding of the world. One such contribution was by Josiah Wedgwood who by observing the “waviness of flint glass” noticed its resemblance to “that which arises when water and spirit of wine are first put together before they become perfectly unified”². The reference is to mixing fluids of different density. Isn’t this experience of tinkering with things similar to our enjoyment and appreciation of coffee? The more we experiment, the more coffee we try (including cupping coffee as with this how-to from Perfect Daily Grind), the more deeply involved in coffee we become and the more we value it. Isn’t it actually true that in order to deepen our relationship with coffee we need to explore it (and experiment with it) more fully? Cannot the same be said for our relation to our world?

interior of Wilton Way cafe

The view from the corner. Spacious and quirky, the Wilton Way cafe has plenty to offer the coffee (or tea) drinker who wishes to slow down and appreciate the moment.

But then a second thought that, to some extent flows from the first. No development would be possible without a community, each contributor bringing a different talent but each contributing to an idea of a greater good. The London Fields Radio would not be possible without the scientists and engineers who design and optimise the broadcasting (and receiving) equipment. But neither would it be possible without talented DJs and musicians, thinkers, poets and performers to give us something to listen to. Two more groups of people are needed for London Fields Radio to be a success. Those who provide the space for the broadcasting equipment (i.e. the café) and those who listen in. Again there is an analogy with coffee. No cup of coffee could be there for us to enjoy without the farmers, the traders, the roasters, the baristas and finally many other people like us who enjoy a good cup. And the more each of us tinker with appreciating another’s work (cupping the coffee like a roaster or tending an allotment to appreciate the growth), the more of a community we become and the better coffee we get for it. We do not imagine while ‘cupping’ coffee that we are really about to take on the role of the coffee trader or roaster, yet by playing at their job we can appreciate their importance and skill more and so realise more effectively our own role too. We could go full-cycle here and consider how playing with radios and experiments can help us to understand the role of technology and science in society and our participation in it, but perhaps that is left as a point to ponder in another café: How can we each contribute to a better society, understand our role in it and appreciate the contributions of others?

One final thought that came from the Lunar society but appears to have a very contemporary relevance. Wedgwood once said to Richard Lovell Edgeworth “But in politics… as in religion, hardly any two people who thought at all, thought exactly alike on everything.” The main thing was “to agree to differ, to agree on impartial investigation and candid argument”.² It appears the Lunar men still have a thing or two to teach us.

Wilton Way cafe can be found at 63 Wilton Way, E8 1BG

¹Radar, How it all began, Jim Brown, Janus Publishing Ltd, 1996

²The Lunar Men, Jenny Uglow, Faber & Faber, 2003

Reflections at Knockbox, Lamb’s Conduit Street

Knockbox, Knock box, coffeeKnockbox coffee is on the corner of Lamb’s Conduit Street and Dombey Street. It is a small place and we had to go twice in order to get a seat, though the compensation is that there are views all around the cafe (it being on a corner). I enjoyed a very good americano, made using Workshop coffee. Complementary jugs of mint infused water were dotted around the cafe which is always a nice touch. Sadly, I tried Knockbox just after lunch and so didn’t try any of the edibles on offer. This does mean however that I will just have to go back to try them at some point (and of course, to enjoy another coffee).

There were a lot of things to notice around Knockbox that day. There were the air bubbles in the water that had become stuck around the mint leaves. There were the light bulbs (that you can see through the windows in the picture). And there was the espresso machine: A gleaming piece of machinery that sat majestically on the counter. Looking at the espresso machine it was impossible not to be struck by the reflections from the surface. The reflections are not only testament to how much the staff at Knockbox must polish the machine; how reflections work is the subject of today’s Daily Grind.

espresso machine, metal, reflection

The gleaming espresso machine at Knock box

The interaction of materials with light is one of those fascinating areas that reveal physics at its most fundamental. I’ve often taught undergraduate physics students who are looking forward to learning about quantum mechanics because it is “weird”. This is true, quantum mechanics can be quirky, but electromagnetism (which is about light) can be just as odd. To get such elegant and surprising physics out of what is essentially all classical, nineteenth century theory, is one of those joys about learning about (and teaching, using and experiencing) this subject.

However, to return to the espresso machine and light.  How light interacts with objects reveals how the electrons are distributed in the material which in turn tells you something about the atoms that make up the espresso machine. (For how to experience electrons in your coffee, see Bending Coffee, Daily Grind, 26 Nov. 2014). As the electrons are electrically charged, they respond to light which is, ultimately, an oscillation of electric (and magnetic) field. Electrons in a metal are shared in an “electron sea” between all the atoms in the metal. Consequently, when light falls on a metal surface, the electrons can respond to the electric field oscillation of the light and they re-emit the light backwards as a reflection.

ImpFringe, #ImpFringe, Fox's Glacier Mints, linearly polarised light

Sugar rotates linearly polarised light. The ‘device’ above is made from layers of Fox’s Glacier Mints and 2 linear polarisers (eg. a pair of polarised sunglasses). Photographed at ‘Lit Up’, an Imperial Fringe event held at Imperial College London, that was free to the public.

On the other hand the electrons in the atoms of the plastic of the grinder (or the glasses on the top of the espresso machine) are held firmly to each atom. Therefore most of the light that we see will go straight through these substances with each atom acting to propagate the light forward but not able to completely block it for a reflection. Coffee beans too contain electrons that are held in place by the atoms in the molecules that make up the bean. Unlike the glass though, the electrons in coffee beans are held in atomic bonds that happen to have an “excitation energy” that is at a visible light frequency. Rather than let the light through, they absorb certain colours of light (more info in the Daily Grind here). The result is the opaque, deep brown of the coffee bean.

This year is the international year of light, a year which is intended to celebrate our understanding of light. There are so many light based processes occurring all around us at every moment. Why not stop in a cafe and see how many you can spot in your coffee cup?

Rain drops at Notes, Covent Garden

Notes Covent Garden, rain, puddles

No one wanted to sit outside when we visited Notes at Covent Garden

It was a cold and wet afternoon in early January when I finally had the opportunity to try Notes (Covent Garden branch). Inside, there were plenty of places to sit while warming up and drying off enjoying a coffee. Although it seems small from the outside, inside, the branch feels quite open, with the bar immediately in front of you as you come through the door. One of the attractions of Notes to me, was the fact that I knew that they served different single estate brewed coffees. I think I tried a “La Benedicion” coffee, or at least that is what I seem to have scribbled in my notepad. We took a stool-seat at the window to look out at the rain as my coffee arrived in a 0.25L glass jar. It is always nice to try different single estate coffees and generally, if I know that a café serves single estate coffees I will seek them out to try them for the Daily Grind.

The reflection of the Notes sign board in a cup of tea

The reflections in a cup of tea

Watching the rain form puddles outside, my thoughts were turned to the reflections bouncing off the water in the puddle. It struck me that the appearance of puddles depends on the water molecules behaving both as individual molecules and as molecules within a group. The rain creates ripples in the puddle which can only occur because each molecule is (weakly) attracted to the other water molecules in the puddle, forming a surface tension effect. A ripple is a necessarily collective ‘action’. On the other hand, the reflection of the lights from the street is the response of each individual water molecule to the incoming light. The reflected image is made from the response of many individual molecules. Reflection is more of an individual molecule thing.

Warning sign, train, turbulence

Such turbulence should be familiar to anyone who has stirred a cup of coffee.

I continued thinking about this when I got home where it occurred to me that there was another connection between rain and coffee. It is often said that “rain helps clear the air”, or something similar. Yet this is not quite true. If you have a coffee in front of you at this instant, take a moment to drag a spoon through it. Note the vortices that form behind the spoon. Such vortices form around any object moving through a fluid. In the case of the coffee it is the spoon through the water. For the rain, as the rain drop falls through the air it creates tiny vortices of air behind it. Just as with the coffee spoon, the size of these vortices depend on the speed and size of the falling drop. These vortices pull and trap the atmospheric dust bringing it down to earth more quickly than rain alone could do. The air is cleaned more by this ‘vacuum cleaner’ action than by the ‘wet mop’ of the rain itself.

I’m sure that there are many other coffee-rain connections that you can make if you sit in a café as I did on a rainy day. Let me know your thoughts on this or indeed, on anything that you notice and think interesting while sitting in a café. There is so much to notice if we just put down the phone or close the laptop while enjoying our brew.

Edited to add: Sadly, this article was posted just as Notes Covent Garden was closing down. Notes still has branches at Trafalgar Square and in Moorgate and is opening new branches in Kings Cross and Canary Wharf in February I believe. Hopefully they will all serve single estate brewed coffee and have good window seats from which to observe the rain when it falls.