A storm in a tea cup, and then some.

23 February 2014 by Alex Brown, posted in speaking science

A cup of coffee

Just a cup of Universe juice

The other day, I was caught somewhat off-guard when I thought I had found entire Universe in a cup of coffee. I won't go so far as to compare my experience to Proust's "madeleine moment", but it certainly felt pretty philosophical...

I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel a lot. I go by train, by plane, and, more recently, by driving myself around in my little car. Often, I do this alone. Especially when driving, I find myself going through little rituals to make sure the trip goes smoothly. From picking out CDs for the trip to the final keys/wallet/phone three-pocket check, these habits make the inevitable monotony of the long drive just a bit more relaxing.

There is one particular trip I make fairly regularly, during which I always stop half-way for a break. I might have some food if it's that sort of time of day, and at the very least I have a cup of coffee. Just such a break, as I stared into the still-hot stimulant, set the scene for my mind to snap back from its usual breaktime wanderings to a strong feeling of here-and-now (or, in our more current frame of reference, there-and-then), a sort of meditation if you will. Feeling the connections of the world and their reflections in an otherwise mundane situation, I imagined all the aspects of the experience playing out in front of me.

My scientific training came to the fore.

I felt physics: thermodynamics in the gradual change of temperature, more heat escaping straight into the air above than through the insulation of the cup; fluid mechanics as I stirred in some sugar. Then came chemistry: the sugar dissolving, the water evaporating, carrying with it such rich smells! This turned into biology, as the aromatic molecules triggered electrical signals which traveled up to my brain, and I began to feel the caffeine's effects. But could I really feel the effects so quickly, or was this the psychological effect of a placebo?

My mind whirred as I came to contemplate all these notions. Usually at this stage in my drive break, I'd be tweeting something about a quirk of Swiss German, not philosophising like this. I was a bit surprised. This was not part of the ritual. But for some reason, I was playing this little game of analysing each of the facets of the drink, from a scientific point of view.

I'm not convinced my half-hearted attempt at using poetic language above is much cop. Feynman says it better, as usual:

Now, while I couldn't necessarily give a detailed explanation of all these ideas in the same way a specialist in each subject might, I was very grateful in that moment to even be aware of them. While not wanting to sound patronising, I feel that having an appreciation for the layers of the world that exist beyond a primary, sensorial impression adds a great deal (what of, I'm not exactly sure - intensity? validity? worth?) to any experience. But then that might just be my privilege showing. Hm.

Anyway, here's Feynman again making the case for scientific understanding adding beauty to the world better than I can:

Going further than the superficial sciences, I started to reflect on the significance of what I was doing. I don't just mean the "Pale Blue Dot" effect and the notion of wonder at being able to think about these ideas in the first place, let alone the seemingly miraculous origins of the atoms and molecules making up the coffee and the fascinating history of the bean.

No, indeed, I also came to think about the social value of caffeine, and wondered how many people around the world were also sitting alone during a long drive, drinking coffee at that very same moment. It was at least 6, based on those I could see in my immediate vicinity. Probably many more though.

But even all of these engaging thoughts faded somewhat as I went over them. The moment passed. After all, it was just a cup of coffee. A temporary lift to get me through the next stretch of driving, to pick me up as I digested dinner. All poetry aside, it was primarily a practical experience.

And yet, as I stirred the end of my drink, mixing in the last of the sugar, I paused again. A French word sauntered up from the back of my mind, and made me smile: touiller. (Pronounced /tu.je/ "too-yeah" (ish))

It means "to stir". Remuer also means "to stir", but in my understanding touiller has a nonchalant or absent-minded aspect to it. To stir without paying much attention or trying very hard. You might twiddle with your hair by touill-ing it, but one would not touille cement. In fact, I have almost exclusively heard it used in relation to that special kind of stirring one does to coffee, when your mind wanders to think about the grandeur and glory of the Universe, and a bit about the remaining leg of the drive home. that might just be my experience, however. The French Wiktionary page mentions salad and earth being touill-ed as well. By reading that page, I also just learned that touiller gives rise to the word ratatouille. Small world.

Touiller son café.

I really like this "expresso expression" (sorry). To me, it expresses not just the simple act of sitting and drinking a coffee, but also of taking a moment to think about one's place in the world and how ridiculous and marvelous it all is. From physics to sociology and right through to languages, there are endless ideas to appreciate.

xkcd: Purity

xkcd.com. Not shown: computer scientists round the back of the picture propping it up, allowing this comic to be drawn and shared online in the first place.


So, yes, in a cup of coffee you can find ALL THE SCIENCE THINGS. But there are also other things.

Candide a conclu qu'il faut cultiver son jardin; j'ajouterai qu'il faut aussi touiller son café.


Over to you:

  • Do you like to travel?
  • Do you travel alone? What rituals do you have to make your trip go more smoothly?
  • How do you say "to stir" in your language?
  • What do you think about over coffee?

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