But first, coffee...

I think what sealed my fate in choosing an institution to call home for my PhD was the coffee machine. Mt Stromlo Observatory has three. Two sit in ‘Possum Hall’, a common area named because while the concrete for the floor was being poured, a rogue possum got in and left footprints (which remain to this day). 



I started drinking coffee around the age of 16, when I got my first job in a stationery store. Feeling like a proper grown-up, I decided that ordering a latte from the cafe down the road befitted my new grown-up status. Over the years, I went from drinking mostly hot milk, to straight black coffee. Partly because of an intolerance to dairy that I developed over the last 4 years and partly because I prefer the taste. 


Coffee, or hot beverages in general - not all scientists drink coffee, drives science. Offices may have water-coolers, but we have the coffee machine. At Mt Stromlo, I was very taken with the fact that almost everyone: IT, senior scientists, postdocs and students, emerge from their offices at 10:30am and line up for the coffee machine. Friendships are made (and on at least one occasion, broken) in the coffee line , collaborations spring from casual questions. The line is longer than it needs to be, because everyone knows which coffee machine is better. 

Henry Zovaro forgets to catch his coffee in his mug, invoking a true scientific paradox: "what do I need to do if I need coffee to figure out how to get my coffee?"

Henry Zovaro forgets to catch his coffee in his mug, invoking a true scientific paradox: "what do I need to do if I need coffee to figure out how to get my coffee?"


My relationship with coffee machines in universities really began where I did my undergraduate years. In the physics tearoom, the coffee machine was an annoyance. Every 10 minutes or so, it would loudly blow steam through its valves. The milk tubes would block up and have to be unblocked by the weary atom-optics PhD students I spend my time with. However, the coffee machine was the focal point for all my friendships - each morning I knew I could sit and discuss problems I was stuck on with my research with the other students. I knew that I could wander down at 3pm and talk to the senior professors. The coffee machine was my first introduction to academic politics and collaboration. Ironically, I didn’t drink the coffee out of the machine, instead choosing to consume so much instant coffee that I gave myself chronic heartburn toward the end of my honors year.


I travel a lot - probably more than average because my collaborators are dispersed around Europe. The most important thing when I arrive at an institution is finding out where the best coffee is. In Europe, this is a challenge. Australia is world-reknowned for having exceptional coffee. A friend who recently moved to Turin for a postdoc has even informed me that Australian coffee is superior to Italian coffee. I hope for his sake, the Italian government hasn’t bugged his phone. Recently I landed in Belfast - the first order of business for myself and my host was to avail me of the coffee situation. 


Having lived in Australia for a time himself, he recognised the importance of the coffee not just being available, but being good. My campus tour featured several cafes, and a run-down of the coffee quality. I enjoy finding common ground with people I work with, and often this common ground is coffee, rather than growing up under the watchful eye of parents who are dentists, emigrating multiple times and having a large portion of one’s family living in Aberdeenshire (which is the case with my Belfast host). Being British by birth, it’s even better if that common ground is something you can complain about. If you’re at Queens University Belfast, go to Junction, in the law building. 


Not all Australian coffee is good. If it’s coming out of a machine in an astronomy department, it can be hit and miss. I’ll never forget the time I accidentally ordered a double espresso from the machine at the University of Western Australia node of ICRAR and was presented with something that looked like dirty engine oil, tasted like kerosene and, in the brief moments it took me to swallow it, enabled me to see through time. 


By a similar token, not all European coffee is bad, but it takes some time to figure out what’s what. Watch the locals. If you’re ever at the Max Planck institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, use the coffee machine in the very corner of the ground floor coffee nook - it produces twice as much coffee as the one on the left. If you’re visiting MPA, next door, make the trip and spend the 40c to get coffee from this machine because whatever came out of the urn in a sad, grey trickle has no business calling itself coffee. 


I’m also someone who will buy coffee for other people. One of my supervisors and I now have a tradition of trading buying one another coffee (cuts down on queue time). However, I tend to do this at known and reliable cafes. Last year, on a visit to Germany, someone kindly offered to buy me a coffee from the brand new barista coffee cart at the canteen (which has since disappeared). Somehow, my ‘black coffee’ request turned into a burnt shot of espresso. I’m one of a group of people who don’t really taste bitter things as being unpleasant (evolutionary speaking, I should be long dead. Being repulsed by bitter tastes is a protective thing) but this coffee was genuinely nasty, and honestly I’m glad the barista coffee cart disappeared from the IPP canteen. The saving grace, or so I thought, was that the espresso came with a piece of chocolate on the side. Biting into it, to wash away the taste of the coffee and not offend the person who bought it for me, who was also talking to me about job opportunities, I realised that it was in fact a chocolate-covered coffee bean. Not wanting to hurt my chance at a job in the research group, I ate it with a smile. 


I think sitting down with a hot drink (usually coffee) and a biscuit is what drives a lot of modern science. Even in this day and age when we mostly communicate via email, sitting face to face with our colleagues is so important. Taking half an hour for a genuine human connection over a cup of coffee isn’t a waste of time, especially for students, and should be encouraged. All great scientific ideas start somewhere, and I’d bet that the majority of them started over a cup of coffee.