The National Science Foundation’s former director of theoretical physics aims to do for the subject of temperature what Elvis did for rock ’n’ roll.
And if Segrè (Astronomy and Physics/Univ. of Pennsylvania) falls short, it’s not by much, although the vast scope here calls for a sometimes stressful pace. The text covers literally everything from the Big Bang to the ultimate fate of our planet and its universe, all from the perspective of how temperature and its measurement have shaped society’s ideas and actions. It’s a museum visit, in effect, that moves briskly on whenever the tour guide is ready. When it does slow down, as in Segrè’s thorough take on why nearly all mammals and birds have an internal body temperature very close to our own 98.6 degrees, it’s rewarding. Unlike a number of his scientific brethren, the author writes clean, conversational prose, applying his sense of humor in good measure to balance the necessary effort readers must expend to follow advanced concepts in thermodynamics, astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and the like. For example, his discussion of the near absence of humidity (thus, almost no snowfall) at the South Pole reminds Segrè of a friend’s T-shirt emblazoned: “Ski the Antarctic, two inches of powder and a two-mile base.” Mathematics appears here and there when required, but carefully prefaced and posed for the lay reader. A particularly lucid section covers the greenhouse effect (tracing first use of the term to the work of French mathematician Fourier in the 1820s) and the stark fact of global warming. Segrè’s own prognosis: “We have little reason to be optimistic,” because the sociopolitical task that lies ahead is immense, and, well, carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere is simply one hell of a problem. In the meantime, the promise of superconductivity, as science reaches that last few billionths of a degree toward Absolute Zero, should at least bring cheaper air conditioning.
Fine work on the ultimate hot topic.