The news of Java Jive’s closing inspired me to reflect a bit on coffee’s role in my research. A strong hint lies in the first two paragraphs of my 1998 book Understanding Cognitive Science:
“The psychology department at the University of Western Ontario has a coffee room on the seventh floor of the Social Sciences and Humanities Center that offers an attractive view of the deciduous forest northwest of the campus. When I was a graduate student in the department, the room was maintained by Jim Webster, whose voice was as gruff as his coffee. Jim has retired now, and has been replaced by an impressive-looking vending machine. The machine may make better coffee, but it can’t replace the chat with Jim that was part of the coffee room ritual.
Conversation is what the coffee room was all about. At any time of the day, you could go there and find a handful of department members talking to one another. Of course, much of the time the topics discussed were the same as those discussed in any coffee room in any organization: gossip, politics, and sports. In addition, though, there was a generous amount of “shop talk”. Faculty would test research ideas out on each other, would describe some of their latest results, and would discuss problems that were arising with one project or another. As a student, you could learn a lot by buying the occasional cup of Jim Webster’s coffee.”
When I finally progressed to having large enough lab space, I ensured that it included a component to serve as my version of Jim Webster’s coffee room. The central fixture is a small Krups espresso machine that I bought refurbished for a handful of dollars many years ago, conveniently located beside a lab sink. At the other end of the lab counter is a Krups burr grinder. The espresso machine has delivered fine coffee for years, but we have made so much espresso that we replaced the grinder – twice! Four bookcases, containing the lab’s excellent cognitive science library, provide a backdrop to a couple of scrounged couches and a reclining armchair. Some ambient lighting set the mood for coffee, conversation, and cognitive science.
The espresso machine in the Biological Computation Project. The blackboard contains some recent work that the machine has fueled.
Setting that conversational mood is important, because we conduct the important business of the lab over coffee, at any time of day. I despise formal lab meetings; as a result, my attempts to organize them have repeatedly failed. Coffee talk is completely different – spontaneous, unconstrained, relaxed, and freewheeling. It can be about anything. Of course, over the years it has been.
Rufus relaxing in the lab's coffee room, near the espresso machine.
Many coffee chats explored the routine (progress reports on thesis and research projects, discussions of lab equipment needs, requests for actions or materials related to a research, writing, or teaching need). Many have been strategy sessions about how to deal with reviewer comments on a manuscript, or about what studies to conduct or write up next. There have been debates about protocols for computer simulation code, brainstorming sessions about problems with mathematical proofs or artificial neural network interpretations, and celebrations of papers or books being published. There has been career counselling, evaluations of job offers to students, and discussions of serious life problems. One famous session with a colleague resulted in a complete simulation study conducted over a half hour of coffee; it was under review a day later, my fastest publication ever. My lab is right beside the room that I teach my night courses in, so many coffee chats have been before and after class, and have involved my undergraduates. Unfortunately, I have contributed more than my fair share of venting and foul language; I should take this moment to apologize for such behavior!
The coffee room setting is critical to the function of my lab, and is fundamental for my ability to develop and explore ideas. My students agree. When I visited one of my graduates in Fredericton, his lab was a clone of mine, with ambient lighting, comfortable chairs, and an espresso machine. The most recent master’s thesis to come from my lab begins with a dedication to coffee. I store my lab beans in a coffee tin that was hand decorated by another PhD student, and given as a thank you after her defense.
My favorite coffee tin, alongside the lab's latest grinder.
Of course, the trouble now is that my prime supplier of beans for that tin is retiring. I visited the Java Jive warehouse yesterday to pick up some fresh coffee. In addition, I was lucky enough to purchase a poster from them that was the result of a 1980s design competition for a group of University of Alberta fine arts students. I will be adding that poster to the lab ambience as soon as possible. We will miss Java Jive; they have been an important (and likely unknowing) contributor to our research for a long time.