An opportunity to become a cafe-scientist

coffee, Timberyard, wooden tray

A great place to sit and do some citizen science: Timberyard, Seven Dials has plenty of seats outside.

There are many things to be gained from putting down your smart phone when you enter a café. Firstly, there is the opportunity to fully experience the coffee. The sounds as it is made, the smell, the taste, even the feel of the coffee. Then there is the opportunity for people watching; their behaviour as they order their coffees or have their meetings or try to alleviate boredom while playing with their smartphones. Of course, there is also the opportunity to look at the history of the café and its surroundings, to think about a café-physics review or just slow down and notice things. There’s always something interesting going on.

If you are lucky enough though to be in Athens, Barcelona, Belgrade, Berlin, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Milan or Rome there is now even more reason to put down that phone while you savour your coffee. By doing so, you could be helping scientists with a few questions that they have about atmospheric pollutants. If you are not in one of those cities, you miss out this time, but you may want to keep reading because if enough people get involved now, perhaps next time the iSPEX-EU project may come near you.

contrail, sunset

What sort of aerosols and pollutants are floating in the atmosphere above your head at this moment?

The question is, what are the atmospheric pollutants that are in the air near where you are now? Perhaps you are in a café on a main road and the answer seems obvious, it is those cars and buses that keep passing by. But there are in fact many forms of atmospheric aerosols or particles and they range in size from a few nanometers to tens of microns (which, in terms of coffee grind is from much smaller than the smallest Turkish coffee to approximately the size of a small particle in an espresso grind). Is it really so clear that where you are, in the centre of that big city, is that polluted? If on the other hand you are on the coast in Barcelona, just how salty is that salty sea air? The iSPEX-EU project allows you to measure it and find out.

These particles of dust, salt and soot etc. can have  an effect on human and animal health, so clearly we want to know more about their distribution and their prevalence. But there are also, more subtle reasons why we may want to know about them. They may have an effect on global warming and they are certainly needed in order for clouds to form, (though as yet we still do not fully understand this process). We need more data about what aerosols are around and where they are to start to know what questions to ask (let alone answer) about health, the climate and cloud formation. Yes, we have satellite measurements and pollution data at specific locations, but what people are missing is that local information. What are you actually breathing? When you look up at the blue sky, what pollutants (or other type of aerosol) are you looking through? Can we get enough data to know how the air quality varies between the cafés of Hackney and those of Hammersmith?

Skylark Wandsworth

Another ideal cafe for iSPEX-EU measurements, great coffee and a lovely outdoor seating area at Skylark cafe, Wandsworth Common

To get this data the scientists involved in iSPEX-EU need people, many people. People who are willing to spend 5 minutes turning their iPhone (sadly it is an iPhone-only project) into a pollution detector. The more people that they can get measuring, the more data that they will be able to obtain. All you need is an app from the App-store and a (free) device that fits over your iPhone camera which you can pick up from somewhere local to you. Then, you just take a seat outside the café on a lovely blue sky day between now and the 15th October, aim your phone at the sky and take a series of photographs which are shared back with the scientists coordinating the project. If you are curious to know how your air quality compares with that in another participating city, you can check the live map to see how the measurements are going across Europe.

The device works by looking at the colour spectrum as well as the polarisation of the light reaching the camera as a function of angle. This information gives tell-tale clues as to the size of the aerosols as well as their prevalence. There is a lot more information on the website of the iSPEX-EU project and so I would recommend that if you do want to know more, you click their link here. In the meantime, why not sign up with iSPEX-EU, take a seat outside in that café and enjoy a great coffee knowing that, as you do so, you are contributing to our understanding of atmospheric science.

If you do decide to participate, please let me know of any great locations that you find, both for the coffee and the measurements, or share your pollution measurements with me in the comments section. I look forward to seeing some great data on the live map.

To get involved with the iSPEX project, you can follow the link here.


Enlightenment at Timberyard, Seven Dials

coffee, Timberyard, wooden tray

Great coffee at Timberyard

It is not often that you come across an independent café in central London that has great coffee, a good deal of space and seats available and so I found myself very happy to have come across Timberyard near Seven Dials. As I ordered my long black, I was presented with a choice of bean for the espresso base. Should I have the “fruity and acidic” Jabberwocky, or the “chocolate” Climpsons? I was trying Timberyard for the first time and so the choice was easy. For me ‘chocolate’ will win over ‘fruity’ every time. However having the choice was a nice touch. Being in central London, it was of course crowded when I tried it, but there were still seats around, including some stools outside. I took a seat outside, ready to watch the people and the cars going by. After a short while, the coffee was brought over, served on a wooden tray together with a complementary bottle of water.

crema on coffee, Timberyard

The patterns as the crema breaks up are reminiscent of the coastlines of Norway and of fractal mathematics.

It was a very pleasant location to sit and enjoy my coffee while I watched people rushing by on their way to various meetings and tourists milling around, taking their time to soak in the city. As I waited for the coffee to cool, the crema on the surface started to break up and I was reminded of the coastline of Norway. It struck me that the same mathematics of fractals describes the coastlines as would describe the patterns in the crema. It was then that I noticed the street lighting. A light converted from an old style gas lamp was attached to the wall of a shop just across from where I was having my coffee. In the other direction, there was a modern lamp-post of one particular design and then, just slightly further down the road, a lamp-post of a different design. This prompted me to think about the history of street lighting and also the problems with it.

One of the first roads in England to be lit at night was the Route du Roi (nowadays known as Rotten Row) that ran from Kensington Palace to St James Park. Three hundred lamps were hung from trees along the route. These first street lights produced light by burning fuel, a method of street lighting which existed in one form or another until fairly recent times (as evidenced by the oldest street lamp visible from Timberyard). They were installed, as now, to try to reduce crime; it seems that the park used to be frequented by highwaymen. One of these had been hanged for the killing of a woman in the park in 1687. Though it wasn’t quite murder: Rather than be robbed of her wedding ring, the unfortunate lady had attempted to swallow it and so choked to death.

gas lamp, Monmouth St

An old style street lamp on Monmouth St. visible from Timberyard

A more recent type of street light was based on sodium. Applying an electric voltage across a gas of sodium caused the sodium to emit light in the yellow region of the visible spectrum. If rather than sodium, the lights had been based on neon gas, the colour of the light emitted would have been different as the colour corresponds to the different energy levels in the atoms, (for more info click here). In an effort to find increasingly efficient light sources, there is now a move into street lighting based on LEDs (Light emitting diodes). Rather like the sodium lamps, such devices work by applying a voltage over a material but in the case of the LEDs, the material is a semiconductor junction (where the energy gap can be manipulated to have the same size as the energy of visible light). LEDs have the significant advantage that the voltage supplied to produce sufficient lighting can be much less than is the case for sodium lights. This increase in efficiency is a small but effective way to limit our carbon dioxide emissions, especially when used together with sensors on the lamp post to detect when it is dark enough to actually necessitate the light being turned on.

Such a combination of energy saving measures benefits not just the planet but the public wallet. Perhaps in a few years time we’ll see such a set of eco-friendly lamp-posts spring up near Timberyard to add to the collection of street lights there.

In the meanwhile, if you visit Timberyard and notice some interesting physics or history, or if you just slow down and see something interesting, please let me know using the comments box below.

Timberyard is at 7 Upper St Martin’s Lane, Seven Dials, WC2H 9DL (and Old St, EC1V 9HW.)

London info taken from The London Encyclopaedia (3rd Ed), Hibbert et al.