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Time for Tea


If it were possible to award a Nobel prize to inanimate objects, top of my nominations list would be the humble mug. A good cup of tea and a biscuit is surely the ideal fortification for pushing back the frontiers of science. Countless experiments have been planned over a cuppa, and a quick break in the tea-room is the ideal place to mull over tricky problems (as well as escaping from the sight of that experiment which has just failed for the fourth time).

For the tea-room is the beating heart of every British science department, and the tea-lady is the soul within. These dispensers of overpriced tea, coffee of varying degrees of drinkability, and faintly stale cakes are what hold together the fabric of discovery. Where else can you discuss such questions of fundamental importance as "How do bats drink out of swimming pools?" and "Why do wet dogs smell like that?"

In every lab I've ever been to, any arriving visitors and dignitaries are always whisked straight off to the tea-room. This is in case they spot the teetering piles of unread papers in the PI's office, or catch sight of the PhD students trying to slash their wrists with a broken measuring cylinder.

The concept and relative importance of the tea-break seems to be peculiarly regional. I went for a 2-week sabbatical in California and was horrified to discover that American scientists never have tea-breaks. I was equally put out to find they never had lunch breaks either, although they did have a healthy disregard for Health & Safety regulations. So instead of basking in the warm San Francisco sunshine, I spent a miserable fortnight trying not to drop bits of salad in the gel tanks by accident. Likewise, during a visit to France I found that a tea-break was unheard of--although admittedly we did spend 4 hours having lunch every day.

This prompted an unscientific survey of my workplace, which found that tea-breaks are popular in Hungary but not in Russia, although allegedly these were encouraged under the old communist regime. In contrast Spaniards eschew tea-breaks, going for the long lunch and siesta option instead. Swedes are fond of a cuppa (with or without a side-serving of pickled herring) while Portuguese researchers, often in need of a strong brew before getting started on the day's experiments, are apparently fond of their coffee.

But despite these intriguing preliminary results, it appears that whether you get a cup of tea basically boils down to your individual lab ethos. Last year I left a lab in which tea-breaks were not so much an institution as a religion, to the point where people's experiments were planned around them. Unfortunately my new workplace is a tea-break-free zone.

Instead, a corner of the office is devoted to all things caffeinated, encrusted with spilt sugar and populated by freebie mugs from molecular biology companies--each sporting its own unique species of microbe. It has to be said our coffee corner resembles a grotty bedsit rather than a frontier of science. We boil up the fetid and scaly kettle hundreds of times a day, hoarding our precious stashes of instant coffee out of the sight of the students. There's a perfectly good tea-room four floors upstairs, selling delicious coffee and an assortment of vaguely nasty cakes, but we never seem to go there. I'm thinking of starting a tea-break movement, to see if it improves lab morale and interactivity, but I think we just might get even less done than usual. Besides, the button on my jeans couldn't cope with the inevitable daily Danish pastry onslaught.

The average scientific tea-room would surely make a good field study for the local anthropology department. A common species to watch out for is the final-year graduate student. They can usually be found slumped in the corner clutching a big pile of papers, chain-drinking Diet Coke and running the chocolate vending machine dry. Contrary to appearances, they are not trying to catch up on the reading they've put off for 3 years but are just desperate to get out of the lab before cabin fever sets in.

As a result, they are more than eager to be interrupted and spend half the afternoon talking about football/politics/that funny smell in the basement. The final-year graduate student is easily confused with a similar species: the hung-over graduate student. On the surface they appear the same, but the hangover sufferer is capable of conversing only in terse grunts while leafing through a dog-eared copy of New Scientist from 1999.

Another frequently spotted inhabitant of the tea-room is the serial tea-breaker. These are the poor souls for whom merely arriving at work is such a stressful event that only a nice cup of tea and a sit-down can relieve them. Once settled down in the comfiest corner they just meld from one break to the next, gate-crashing those of other labs if necessary (especially if they have birthday cake) and dishing out wisdom to anyone who'll listen. Perhaps old academics never die; they just stay in the tea-room until they morph into armchairs.

Some tea-rooms even masquerade as proper cafés, selling sandwiches and rolls to unsuspecting scientists. In most cases these offerings run the full gamut of filling varieties, from tuna mayo to cheese and pickle, back to tuna mayo again. They may be fit only for consumption by weary grad students who have forgotten to buy any bread again, but be wary of enterprising caterers who decide to branch out into more modern flavours. Lightly toasted goat's cheese on a bed of Mediterranean roasted vegetables with a raspberry and balsamic vinegar jus might be fine for the posh cafés of Kensington, but it doesn't taste so good after a week lingering in a soggy baguette. The other beneficiaries of departmental sandwiches are insignificant seminar speakers. It's a true mark of scientific prowess when you give a talk somewhere and actually get taken to the pub afterwards.

No discussion of the scientific refreshment break would be complete without mentioning the role of the humble coffee-pot in the development of Web cams. In 1991 a team of frustrated computer types at Cambridge developed a primitive online camera to find out whether it would be worth making the long trek to the departmental tea-room ( There is definitely a marketing niche here begging to be filled by an enterprising imaging company. Perhaps the strength and consistency of the coffee could also be monitored online, linked to an algorithm calculating the predicted lab productivity and irritability upon consumption.

Tea-rooms and tea-breaks are a great scientific institution and should be nurtured and cherished. Lobby your funding body for subsidised espressos! Write to the government demanding free cakes for all researchers every Friday! In fact, why stop there? Beanbags and sofas should be obligatory in all tea-rooms. Masseurs might be nice too, although I can see why my request for hammocks was turned down on the grounds of practicality and Health & Safety.

And if the mug doesn't win the Nobel prize, my second nomination would be the humble pint of beer--but that's the subject for another article.

Kat Arney is currently having a cappuccino and that Danish pastry. ...