Cover image for Absolute zero and the conquest of cold
Absolute zero and the conquest of cold
Shachtman, Tom, 1942-
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Publication Information:
Boston : Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Physical Description:
261 pages ; 22 cm
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QC278 .S48 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In a sweeping yet marvelously concise history, Tom Shachtman ushers us into a world in which scientists tease apart the all-important secrets of cold. Readers take an extraordinary trip, starting in the 1600s with an alchemist's air conditioning of Westminster Abbey and scientists' creation of thermometers. Later, while entrepreneurs sold Walden Pond ice to tropical countries -- packed in "high-tech" sawdust -- researchers pursued absolute zero and interpreted their work as romantically asdid adventurers to remote regions. Today, playing with ultracold temperatures is one of the hottest frontiers in physics, with scientists creating useful particles Einstein only dreamed of. Tom Shachtman shares a great scientific adventure story and its characters' rich lives in a book that has won a grant from the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Absolute Zero is for everyone who loves history and science history stories, who's eager to explore Nobel Prize-winning physics today, or who has ever sighed with pleasure on encountering air conditioning.

Author Notes

Tom Shachtman has written twenty-five books, including the best-selling "The Gilded Leaf" (with Patrick Reynolds), as well as documentaries for all of the major television networks.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Publisher's Weekly Review

This uneven narrative history of scientific and commercial cooling seeks to elucidate the very nature of cold. The concept that cold was simply the absence of heat was itself a long time coming. The 17th-century English natural philosopher Robert Boyle first disproved conventional beliefs that water and wind produced cold. Temperature could only be measured using rudimentary methods, as the thermometer took years to evolve into the mercury-filled glass unit we know today. (Documentary filmmaker Shachtman gives proper kudos to Gabriel Fahrenheit and Anders Celsius.) Shachtman then turns to the evolution of the natural ice business in the 19th century, which allowed frozen food to be carried hundreds of miles and enabled individuals to preserve fresh food at home. While the natural ice industry expanded, laboratory experiments attempted to determine the best way to travel to the "land of Frigor." Nineteenth-century European scientists believed that some combination of temperature and pressure could liquefy all the components of air, but the apparatus for condensing these gases proved increasingly complex and dangerous. First oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and, finally, the difficult-to-obtain element helium were liquefied in a series of contests, each race resulting in a few drops of precious fluid. Shachtman's book comes alive in his highly technical descriptions of the unique and wondrous properties of materials at only a few degrees above absolute zero. After describing the heyday of these experiments in the 1950s, Shachtman backtracks, racing through the technological advances in commercial cooling in the 20th century. At times concise, at other times meandering, this history holds the reader's interest by its intrinsically fascinating subject matter. (Dec.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Award-winning documentary filmmaker and writer Schachtman offers an engaging and quirky account of the investigation of temperature, and ultimate mastery of thermal regulation. He documents the evolution of our understanding of how and why temperature varies, how temperature can be measured, and how humans can modify the thermal environment to the benefit of human health and comfort. He introduces many of the foremost scientists who have engaged in this research, along with an assortment of magicians and sorcerers who have used their understanding of temperature to entertain their audiences. The parallels with Dava Sobel's excellent Longitude (CH, Mar'96) are evident. Both seek to describe the characters and advancements of science in an accessible form, and thus to introduce a broader spectrum of the public to the excitement of scientific pursuits and to the intrigue and skullduggery that often accompany major scientific endeavors. The book artfully conveys a good deal of fundamental science, although its format and style prohibit its use as a teaching text for scientific courses. The book might have benefited from inclusion of a few schematics or other diagrams and regrettably contains no bibliography. General readers. S. C. Pryor; Indiana University

Booklist Review

Exploring the "country of cold," Shachtman's metaphor for thermodynamic research, has a history of experimentation extending from the present back to the beginnings of the scientific method in the days of Francis Bacon. To understand cold, one first needed to measure it, so the invention of the thermometer is one of many episodes Shachtman narrates in lively fashion. He writes of the tinkerers and scientists who grasped what heat is, that it has an impassable lower limit (hats off to Guillaume Amonton's 1703 discovery), and how to extract heat in order to reduce temperature. Development of cooling technology created the refrigeration industry in the mid-nineteenth century, followed by a turn-of-the century competition between James Dewer (inventor of the thermos bottle) and Kammerlingh Onnes to liquefy light gases. Liquefaction occurs so near absolute zero that, Shachtman explains, quantum effects emerge in phenomena-like superconductivity and superfluidity. An absorbing account to chill out with. --Gilbert Taylor

Library Journal Review

According to Shachtman, the story of cold starts in the 1600s when Francis Bacon first struggled to separate science from magic and alchemy. Continuing with Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes, and then moving steadily forward through the ages, Shachtman examines the development of experimental and philosophical methods of scientific thought and the ideas that led us to understand thermodynamicsÄthat is, heat and cold. Then he traces just how understanding thermodynamics led to the development of refrigeration, frozen foods, air conditioning, and liquefied gases (currently a $10 billion industry). The pursuit of absolute zero may not, at first, seem important or exciting to the uninformed. But ShachtmanÄan award-winning documentary filmmaker and children's book author who has a gift for telling scientific adventure storiesÄhas done a wonderful job of conveying the excitement of recent research. (This includes the development of superconductors, new states of matter, and the Bose-Einstein condensate.) This is a truly wonderful book; purchase this before it becomes an episode of Nova. For public and academic libraries.ÄJames Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ. Lib., Chicago (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1Winter in SummerKing James I of England and Scotland chose a very warm day in the summer of 1620 for Cornelis Drebbel's newest demonstration and decreed that it be held in the Great Hall of Westminster Abbey. Drebbel had promised to delight the king by making the atmosphere of some building cold enough in summer to mimic the dead of winter, and by choosing the Great Hall the king gave him an enormous challenge, the largest interior space in the British Isles, 332 feet from one end to the other and 102 feet from the floor to the golden bosses of its vaulted white ceiling. In 1620 most people considered the likelihood of reversing the seasons inside a building impossible, and many deemed it sacrilege, an attempt to contravene the natural order, to twist the configuration of the world established by God. Early- seventeenth-century Britons and Europeans construed cold only as a facet of nature in winter. Some believed cold had an origin point, far to the north; the most fanciful maps represented Thule, a near- mythical island thought to exist six days' sailing north of the northern end of Britain and supposedly visited only once, by Pytheas in the fourth century B.C. -- an unexplored, unknown country of permanent cold. Not until the end of the nineteenth century would a true locus of the cold become a more real destination, as Victorian scientists tried to reach absolute zero, a point they sometimes called "Ultima Thule." Likening themselves to contemporary explorers of the uncharted Arctic and Antarctic regions, these laboratory scientists sought a goal so intense, so horrific, yet so marvelous in its ability to transform all matter that in comparison ice was warm. In the early seventeenth century, even ordinary winter cold was forbidding enough that the imagination failed when trying to grapple with it. "Natural philosophers" could conceive technological feats that would not be accomplished until hundreds of years later -- heavier-than-air flight, ultrarapid ground transportation, the prolongation of life through better medicines, even the construction of skyscrapers and the use of robots -- but not a single human being envisioned a society able to utilize intense cold to advantage. Perhaps this was because while the sources of heat were obvious -- the sun, the crackle of a fire, the life force of animals and human beings -- cold was a mystery without an obvious source, a chill associated with death, inexplicable, too fearsome to investigate. Abhorrence of cold was reflected in only sporadic use made of natural refrigeration, an omission that permitted a large percentage of harvested grains, meats, dairy products, vegetables, fruits, and fish to spoil or rot before humans could eat them. And since natural refrigeration was so underutilized, producing refrigeration by artificial means was considered a preposterous idea. No fabulist in 1620 could conceive that there could ever be a connection between artificial cold and imp Excerpted from Absolute Zero: And the Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

1. Winter in Summerp. 1
2. Exploring the Frontiersp. 16
3. Battle of the Thermometersp. 36
4. Adventures in the Ice Tradep. 56
5. The Confraternity of the Overlookedp. 78
6. Through Heat to Coldp. 95
7. Of Explosions and Mysterious Mistsp. 109
8. Painting the Map of Frigorp. 125
9. Rare and Common Gasesp. 153
10. The Fifth Stepp. 167
11. A Sudden and Profound Disappearancep. 183
12. Three Puzzles and a Solutionp. 200
13. Mastery of the Coldp. 219
Acknowledgmentsp. 243
Notesp. 244
Indexp. 250