Store St Espresso

A need for religion at Continental Stores, Russell Square

exterior of Continental Stores

Ghosts of shops past! Continental Stores on Tavistock Place

Many years ago Tavistock Place, now home to Continental Stores, was on my cycle route home. I can no longer remember whether the sign “Continental Stores” was visible then or whether it had a second sign over it. However, the faded red backdrop, the vintage font and the whole feel of the frontage does make “Continental Stores” (the café) stand out a bit from the crowd. Continental Stores is run by the same people who run Store St Espresso on Store St. but much of the original decoration of the café has been kept from the old shop that previously occupied this space. And although this ‘new’ branch is now more than three years old, for various reasons I’ve never quite got to visit until a couple of weeks ago.

We arrived fairly late, just half an hour before closing, and managed to get a long black before the espresso machine (which was apparently having a bad day) finally packed up. Although filter coffee was available, this is not the case when you arrive so close to closing. The coffee was however very drinkable and the window seat provided a great place to watch people pass by. Bubbles formed around the edge of the coffee, reflecting the light streaming through the window in this airy café. White mists skitted over the surface of the drink. There was plenty to consider in the café too, from the oil paintings on the wall to the subtle green colour of the glass separating the interior of the café from the bar area (for more on glass colours click here). A large amount of science in a cosy place. However today’s train of thought took a somewhat different direction. That day, sitting in the café, prompted a thought train to develop in a more introspective direction: what does climate change denial have to do with personal integrity and the need for a continuing dialogue between science and religion? And what does that have to do with coffee drinkers?

Incredibly, it started with a map.

glass and map interior Continental Stores

So much to contemplate! From glass to the map.

On the wall in the main area of the café, behind the counter, is a map depicting the world. Although there is a photo on this page, there is a far better one in Brian’s Coffee Spot review of Continental Stores which can be found here (scroll through the gallery to find it). Also on the map are two circular depictions of the Polar regions. That fact, that the poles are illustrated separately and that the map is a rectangular impression of our spherical home impressed on me the knowledge that it is extremely difficult to truly represent our globe on a flat piece of paper. All maps are projections and the one at Continental Stores is the familiar cylindrical projection where you imagine a cylinder of paper wrapped around the equator of the Earth and then project the profile of the countries around onto it.

A few years ago a Malaysian-Chinese lady, now in her 70s told me a story about growing up in Malaysia (then Malaya) under British colonial rule. At school it was always impressed upon her how much larger Britain was than Malaysia, you could see it just from looking at the maps (which were always of the cylindrical projection as displayed at Continental Stores). It was only later that she realised the importance of map projections. Although Malaysia, at the equator, was fairly well represented by the cylindrical representation, Britain, being relatively closer to the poles, was stretched and so appeared much larger. Britain is in fact larger than the Western Malaysia peninsular but not to the extent that it appeared from the map. Had the map projection been used as a subtle political tool justifying Britain’s rule over Malaya*?

Similar thoughts occurred to me recently with some of the comments that have followed hurricane Harvey in the US (and the floods in south Asia that have killed more than 1200 people but have sadly been far less reported here in the UK). Was the intensity of the hurricane, and the fact that we are experiencing similarly intense storms more frequently, a consequence of climate change?

message inside Continental Stores

From the table to our planet. A message with resonances.

Although that’s an interesting question, it’s not the one that I would like to consider today. Instead, it’s the response on social media generated by data about the frequency of the hurricanes and their strength. “Why are you only showing weather information for the past X years, if you look back further/look more recently…” etc. It is the same with graphs showing global temperatures as a function of time. People ask “Why are they plotted that way, if we looked back further/zoomed in a bit more….” It seems that there is an accusation behind many of the questions; there is doubt about the integrity of the scientist who circulated the graph. What is at the root of this?

When writing a scientific paper (even on a relatively uncontroversial topic like magnetism), there is frequently a lot of discussion about exactly how to present the data. The graphs need to be clear enough and on a scale that the ‘message’ of the paper is delivered quickly. But equally in a way that does not misrepresent the data. Then, different authors have different ideas on aesthetics. The final graph is a balance between these. So why is there such distrust of similar graphs presented on subjects such as climate change? Are we so used to being sold messages in adverts that we immediately suspect the scientists of an evil motive, trying to persuade us to ‘buy’ an ideology?

Clearly there are occasions on which data is presented in a manner to impress rather than to reveal, as was the case with the map. Though even with the map, there is some ambiguity. Some cylindrical projections can be helpful for navigators as lines of latitude and longitude cross perpendicularly. There are times when such a representation would be useful. So when we generate, share or read such  graphs, we need to ask ourselves questions about our reaction to them. Are we representing the data truthfully? Are we trying to make the data fit into opinions that we already hold? These questions apply equally whether we are creating the graph or if we are seeing it on social media and reacting to it.

black coffee Continental Stores

Bringing it back to the coffee. The bubbles reflect the light from the windows. Taking time to contemplate the drink gives us space to reflect.

These considerations generate questions of their own. What do we think science is? Do we believe in the existence of truth? What is truth anyway? What are my motives in sharing/reading this piece of information; am I trying to understand the world or manipulate it to my advantage?

Which is just one reason (of many) that a respectful dialogue between science and the humanities, between scientists and theologians is desperately needed. Religions and philosophies have been asking questions about the nature of being, questions of truth and motive for millennia. Tools such as the examination of conscience have been developed by religious traditions to allow us to interrogate our own motives and to start to understand our own behaviour. In a week when it was revealed that more than 50% of people in the UK describe themselves as having ‘no religion’ it seems to me that, whether we believe in a religion or not, many of us would benefit from such an examination of conscience before we hit ‘retweet’, ‘like’ or ‘share’. Questioning our motives before creating, sharing or commenting. But such tools require space and the time taken to slow down, perhaps in a café, to deliberate on our own attitudes. Time that is needed to help us to see if it is our behaviour that needs amending before we question the integrity of others.

Such deliberations often don’t have conclusions but instead open up more questions. The fortunate consequence of which is that it becomes imperative that we spend more time contemplating our coffee in quiet, welcoming and thought provoking environments such as that found at Continental Stores.

Continental Stores can be found at 54 Tavistock Place, WC1H 9RG.

*I have kept the name of the country Malaysia as it is now known apart from when referring to the time when Britain had colonised it and called it “Malaya”.


Reflections at Store St Espresso, Bloomsbury

Store St Espresso, coffee, Bloomsbury, UCL, London

Store St Espresso, Bloomsbury

I finally got around to visiting Store St Espresso two weeks ago while visiting the nearby Institute of Making’s 3rd birthday science-outreach party. Although the café was crowded, we managed to find a place to perch while we enjoyed a soya hot chocolate, caffé latte and my V60. Beans are from Square Mile while the V60 and filter coffee options featured guest roasters. Despite the narrow frontage, there is actually plenty of seating inside and people were happy to share tables with other customers when it got particularly busy. The café is well lit with sunlight streaming in through the sky lights above (indeed, the extra electric lighting indoors seemed a bit unnecessary given the amount of sunlight coming through the windows on such a good day). On the walls of the cafe were pieces of artwork, including quite a large pencil/charcoal piece right at the back of the cafe.

I was meeting a friend for coffee before going to the science event and so thought it would be good to combine a cafe-physics review with a visit to the science. It is always interesting to hear other people’s observations of the same space that you are ‘reviewing’. In this case, I was taken by the floor which showed some very interesting crack structures but what fascinated my friend (who was enjoying her caffe-latte) was the way that the sound from the stereo was reflecting from the bare walls, floor and ceiling. While cracks and fracture processes can be very interesting, perhaps it is worth following her observations as it leads, in a round about way, back to the coffee that she was drinking.

latte art, hot chocolate art, soya art

A caffe latte and a soya hot chocolate at Store St Espresso

While studying for my physics degree, a lecturer in a course on crystallography told us an anecdote. The story concerned a physicist walking past an apple orchard. As he was walking past, he noticed that at certain points he could hear the church bells from a distant church. As he walked on, the sound of the bells faded, before suddenly, he could hear them again. The physicist went on to derive the laws of X-ray diffraction, a technique that is now used routinely in order to understand the arrangement of atoms in crystals (like salt, diamond or caffeine). X-rays are part of the electromagnetic spectrum (just like visible light) but they have a very short wavelength.  The orchard had been inspirational to the physicist because, just as a crystal is a regular array of atoms, so the apple orchard is a regular array of trees; as you travel past an orchard (on the train, in a car or on foot), there are certain angles at which you can see straight through the trees, they have been planted in a 2D lattice. The church bells could only be heard at certain angles because of the way that the sound was being reflected from the multiple layers of the trees. The effect occurs because the sound made by church bells has a similar wavelength to the spacing of the trees (eg. ‘Big Ben’ chimes close to the note E, which has a wavelength of approximately 1m). The distance between atomic layers in a crystal is similar to the wavelength of the X-rays (the wavelength of X-rays frequently used for crystallography = 1.54 Å, size of the repeating structure in a salt crystal: 5.4 Å, 1 Å = 1/100000 of the smallest particle in an espresso grind). The physicist realised that the orchard affected the church bells in exactly the same way that the atoms in a crystal, be it salt, diamond or caffeine, will affect the deflection of X-rays. Suddenly, it became possible to actually ‘see’ crystal structures by measuring the angles at which the X-rays were scattered from substances.

bubbles on a soap solution

Not quite a regular 2D lattice. By controlling the size of the bubbles and the number of layers, you can simulate the crystal structure of different metals. Seems I need more practice in making bubbles of a similar size.

We can perhaps imagine an apple orchard but what do crystals look like? Crystals can come in many forms, all they need to be is a repeating structure of atoms through the solid. Some crystals are cubic, such as salt, some are hexagonal, others form different shapes. Metals, such as that making up the shiny espresso machine in the cafe are often a certain form of cubic structure and to visualise it, we can return to my friend’s caffé latte (via some soap). Two people who were instrumental in understanding X-ray diffraction were the father and son physicists, William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg. While attempting to make a model of crystal structures, William Lawrence Bragg found that the bubbles that could be formed on top of a soap solution were a very good approximation of the sort of crystal structures observed in metals (his paper can be found here). As they form, the soap bubbles (provided they are of similar size) form a regular cubic structure on the surface of the soap solution held together by capillary attraction, a very good model for the sort of bonding that occurs in metals. By controlling the size of the bubbles, the number of layers and the pressures on the layers of the bubbles, all sorts of phenomena that we usually see in crystals (grain boundaries, dislocations etc) could be made to form in “crystals” formed from soap bubbles. Why not look for such crystal structures in the foam of your cafe latte, though be careful to see how the size of the bubbles affects the arrangement of the bubbles through the foam structure.

Sadly, I have never found a reference to the story of the physicist and the apple orchard and it may even have been apocryphal. The closest reference I can find is that W. Lawrence Bragg (after whom the laws of X-ray diffraction are named) had a “moment of inspiration” for how X-rays would ‘reflect’ from multi-layers of atoms while he was walking in an area called “The Backs” in Cambridge. If any reader of this blog does know a good reference to this story I would be very much obliged if they could tell me in the comments section (below). To this day, I have been unable to pass by an orchard (or even a palm oil estate in Malaysia) without thinking about crystal structure, X-ray diffraction and church bells!

It seems that taking time to appreciate how sound is reflected (or diffracted) from objects, either in Store St Espresso or in an apple orchard, could be a very fruitful thing to do. If you have an observation of science in a cafe that you would like to share, please let me know here.

Store St Espresso can be found at 40 Store St. WC1E 7DB

The physics of X-ray diffraction and some great bubble crystal structures can be found in the Feynman Lectures on Physics, Vol II, 30-9 onwards.