social media

The idea of a coffee at A Wanted Man

We cannot do without a view, and we put up with an illusion, when we cannot get at a truth“.

A wanted man, Chelsea, coffee cup

A wanted man becomes visible under thin coffee.

A Wanted Man on Chelsea’s Kings Road is unusual in many respects. Firstly, never before have I been to an espresso ‘canteen’, but then, neither have I had a coffee in a café that is part coffee-shop part waxing salon. While both wax based hair removal and coffee rely on bees, this is surely not the connection between these two enterprises. Nonetheless, once your coffee-loyalty card is full, you can choose: free brow shape, bikini wax or coffee. The coffee comes from Common Man Coffee Roasters in Singapore so it would be interesting to know how it was transported to Chelsea in order to retain its freshness, surely each batch is not flown in? On our first visit, we had a rich and smooth long black, a lovely aromatic banana bread and a good hot chocolate (with soy milk). There is plenty of seating in the front of the café and some more towards the back near the bar which was all fairly empty on our first visit but far more crowded (with singly-occupied tables) on my second visit (see below).

As I drank my coffee, hidden wording became visible at the bottom of the cup. “A wanted man” appeared beneath the coffee when the coffee was sufficiently thin. By tilting the cup, this “critical” thickness could be estimated, as you can see in the photos. Ah-ha I thought, the physics bit of this cafe-physics-review will be easy! The absorption of light (which we could measure by the visibility of the writing at the bottom of the cup) is directly proportional to the thickness of the absorbing liquid, the coffee. This is the Beer-Lambert law which describes how light is absorbed through substances such as coffee in which there are molecules and bits of sediment that absorb light (which is ultimately why coffee appears brown). Could I experimentally verify this bit of the Beer-Lambert law by somehow quantifying the visibility of the wording as a function of cup-tilt angle?

a tilted coffee cup at a wanted man

Absorption is a function of thickness and concentration

Before I had thought that far, I had finished the coffee, however the second part of the Beer-Lambert law could be tested by having another coffee on a separate occasion. The other part of the Beer-Lambert law states that the absorption (that’s the (in)visibility of the wording on the cup in this case) is also directly proportional to the concentration of the absorbing molecules/sediment. This makes sense, weak coffee is far more transparent than overly extracted coffee. On my second visit, the coffee tasted slightly stronger, a bit different from my memories of the first occasion. Did the “A wanted man” become visible at a different tilt angle? I would guess – or perhaps that should read ‘hypothes-ise’ – that the angle on the second occasion would have to be lower (that the coffee would have to be thinner generally).

However, while sipping my coffee (before getting to the tilt-angle-test) and looking around the second time I noticed that all along the wall where previously there had been plenty of empty tables, each one was now singly occupied by somebody using a laptop, a phone/tablet or in one case, both of these items together. This second time, my mind started wandering into more social issues, while looking at our screens and immersed in social media, are we able to see more or less, than our less absorbed fellow citizens? Does social media clarify the detail or cloud important aspects of our understanding?

Beer-Lambert applied to twitter and Facebook

Does social media do this to you? The light absorption of a coffee is determined by the thickness of the coffee and concentration of absorption sites within it.

After considering these two points, it became clear that in some ways they are connected. Admittedly a loose connection, and not one that is strictly scientific but perhaps it’s worth ‘running with it’ for a bit and seeing if it leads anywhere. Just as with the Beer-Lambert law with coffee, the more ‘interacting sites’ (or absorption sites) we encounter on social media, the harder it is to see through to the bottom. Twitter, Facebook etc. can be enormously helpful for widening our networks and learning about new things. But, as has been frequently pointed out elsewhere, they can also become quite unhelpful when we are in an “echo chamber” or when we think that points can be made in mere soundbites. Is it possible that the more absorbing and reflecting sites that we encounter, the harder it is to see anything to any greater depth? What we need is time-out, for self-reflection and for considering points made by others, on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere.

Perhaps the best way to end such a post is with a long quote by somebody else. In fact, the same person (and in the same book) as was quoted at the beginning of this article. Perhaps it would be something to consider while we drink our coffees and hover over the ‘retweet’ or ‘share’ button. Are we helping to probe the depths of our cup by the links we share, or are we merely adding to absorption sites in soundbites in our networks?

It requires a great deal of reading, or a wide range of information, to warrant us in putting forth our opinions on any serious subject; and without such learning the most original mind may be able indeed to dazzle, to amuse, to refute, to perplex, but not to come to any useful result or any trustworthy conclusion. There are indeed persons who profess a different view of the matter, and even act upon it. Every now and then you will find a person of vigorous or fertile mind, who relies upon his own resources, despises all former authors, and gives the world, with the utmost fearlessness, his views upon religion, or history, or any other popular subject. And his works may sell for a while; he may get a name in  his day; but this will be all. His readers are sure to find on the long run that his doctrines are mere theories, and not the expression of facts, that they are chaff instead of bread, and then his popularity drops as suddenly as it rose.

John Henry Newman, The idea of a university.

A Wanted Man can be found at 330 Kings Road, London

Happiness is a cup of coffee

stone recycling, slate, slate waterfall, geology

A cafe with a lovely space to enjoy the coffee. Taking time out at Espresso Base

If you are reading this, you clearly have access to a computer. You are also quite possibly connected through social media to friends, colleagues and others through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or one of the other numerous ways in which we can now connect with each other. And while I would love for you to continue reading, at least for a couple of moments, I would like to ask you how often you take the opportunity to stop?  To stop and turn off your computer or the notifications on your smart phone and just look at what is around you.

This website is really about slowing down and noticing things. Since I believe that science offers a great way of seeing the connectedness of the world around us, I choose to emphasise the science that you can notice around you. It is most likely that you see the world in a different way, sharing some aspects of my point of view, disagreeing with others. However, it seems to me that slowing down and noticing your surroundings, whether you look at the science or another aspect of those surroundings, makes us in some way happier, or at least, generally, more calm. Having a coffee in a café is a great way of doing this. Whether you are interested in the café or the coffee (or indeed both), there is an awful lot to notice and to appreciate in a café. Noticing it of course does depend on keeping the smartphone (tablet or laptop) in your pocket or your bag. Personally, I find it slightly depressing when I see signs in a café saying “free wifi” (though I suspect I am in a minority on that one). And although if we are not used to it, not checking our email while having a coffee can seem to be enforced boredom, I’d hope that we soon realise that such boredom is in fact creative.

Sun-dog, Sun dog

Walking along while texting could mean that you miss seeing a sun dog

Please don’t get me wrong. It is not that I think social media are a bad thing. I have met (either ‘virtually’ or in person) some great and highly interesting people whom I would never have had the opportunity to meet were it not through Twitter/Facebook etc. Each day, I learn something new through the many people whose experience or knowledge I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to ‘tap’. However, just as sometimes it is great to have such interactions, I have found that it is also vital to have times (perhaps even a day a week) when the smartphone is kept firmly in the pocket (or at least, notifications are turned off).

In the UK, we have just got back from a long weekend. Many cafés were closed over the Easter break. Some of the café-Twitterers I follow went on a long break to the countryside (and Tweeted about it), others just turned off their social media for a few days. Elsewhere in the world you perhaps have different long weekends, Chinese New Year or Christmas. Perhaps during these holidays you manage to get a break in the countryside or by the coast. It is here that there is a link between an interesting recent study and a great use of a smartphone.  The study, by researchers at the University of Surrey and the London School of Economics, attempts to measure your ‘happiness’ while you are undertaking different activities in different locations, in urban environments, at work, or bird watching in the country.

Another great coffee outside, this time at Skylark cafe

Another great coffee outside, this time at Skylark cafe

Called the ‘mappiness‘ project, an app downloaded onto your iPhone (it is, sadly, only for iPhones), prompts the user to answer a question about their own perceived level of happiness at random instants. It then records the location of the phone (through GPS) and further asks the user to describe what they are doing. Over 1 million responses have so far been recorded through 20 000 participants. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the researchers have so far found that people tend to rate their happiness higher when they are outside, in natural environments and particularly in coastal areas. To me, it opens questions as to whether we should be attempting to quantify happiness or whether we should embrace the discussions of the humanities on this issue (less precise perhaps but by that very fact more complete and therefore more accurate). Perhaps these two approaches are complimentary. Nonetheless, the mappiness project remains an interesting study of a way in which you can use your phone in order to get a measure of where you should use your phone less.

Do get in touch and let me know what you think. Do you find it necessary to have some time out from social media or is Facebook your lifeline? Should cafés offer free wifi? Comments are always welcome (below) or you can get in touch by those two social media sites Twitter or Facebook. I do look forward to interacting with you there.