Absolute Zero° and the Conquest of Cold
A Book to Read Indoors This Winter
Written by Tom Shachtman
Published by Mariner Books
Tom Shachtman’s book on the pursuit of absolute zero and its influence on the progress of science and society may not be the hottest new paperback in stores for those bitter about the winter cold. Then again, if you’re inside, prolonged exposure to talk of temperatures hundreds of degrees below zero is tolerable, especially when composed so skillfully and concisely by the author.
Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold is more than a history of science’s effort to master the cold; it is a dramatic story of a journey into the unexplored “country of the cold, with all of the danger, sense of the unknown, and fervid romanticism summoned up by that metaphor.”
As Shachtman notes, the scientists were the first ones to use the historical metaphor for their pursuit of absolute zero -- the temperature at which matter has no thermal energy, equal to --273.15°C: “Geographic explorers were thrusting toward the North and South Poles; this band of physicists and chemists were on a similar adventure, aiming toward their own ‘cold pole,’... the absolute zero of temperature.”
Yet Shachtman’s story does not immediately begin with that race for absolute zero. First, he devotes several chapters to explaining the theory, technology, and historical circumstances that made studying matter at lower and lower temperatures possible and meaningful. For the expedition even to start, the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century first had to overcome the medieval attitude which viewed cold not as a subject of scientific inquiry but as “a mystery without an obvious source, a chill associated with death, inexplicable, too fearsome to investigate.” Besides surmounting such societal obstacles, the scientists leading the expedition had to constantly create new technology to control the cold, beginning with the invention of thermometers and their scales in the 18th century.
Shachtman does not neglect to note the tremendous impact such cold technology had on industry outside the lab. He traces how commercial applications like air-conditioning and artificial refrigeration influenced everything from the growth of railroads to the fate of Native Americans in American history: “The conventional view of American history is that it was the ‘iron horse’ that finally killed the ‘red man,’ but one could with as much justification say that it was the refrigerator.”
Even with the right tools for handling low temperatures, however, the chemists and physicists first had to understand heat through the theory of thermodynamics developed in the nineteenth century before they could design the right experiments. Through thermodynamic analysis, the explorers in the late nineteenth century were finally able to “paint the map of Frigor” and the way to master it: the liquefaction of gases. The scientists moved from gas to gas down the scale, liquefying oxygen, then nitrogen, then hydrogen and finally reaching a mere five degrees Kelvin in 1908 with the liquefaction of helium. Despite being so close to absolute zero, the “cold pole” was becoming less critical because, in 1905, Walter Nernst articulated the third law of thermodynamics which shows that absolute zero is unreachable. Even today, when scientists are within billionths of a degree of absolute zero, their goal has shifted to understanding altered properties of matter at ultra-low temperatures like superconductivity, which may once again transform modern industry as well as help in the study of the origin of the universe.
While recounting the technical details of the effort and their influence on science and society in general, Shachtman also manages to evoke the excitement of the journey by inserting relevant anecdotes about the personalities of the scientists. Developing the characters of his history, he reveals how some larger egos became obstacles themselves along the way.
Shachtman’s storytelling adds another layer to an already impressive chronicle of the pursuit of absolute zero. Although he may lean towards the melodramatic when he characterizes the conquest of cold as a clash between man and nature, it’s difficult to deny its impact on civilization after reading Shachtman’s book.