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ABSOLUTE ZERO AND THE CONQUEST OF COLD by Tom Shachtman

ABSOLUTE ZERO AND THE CONQUEST OF COLD

By Tom Shachtman

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-395-93888-0
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

An intriguing but ponderous history of controlled cold and the pursuit of absolute zero. Unlike heat, explains Shachtman (Around the Block, 1997, etc.), cold was for a long time a mystery without a source, associated with death, simply feared. By the 17th century, scientists were beginning to take the pulse of cold. Shachtman takes readers from the first experiments with the expansion and contraction of water by Robert Boyle, through the invention of the Florentine thermometer (with its 360 divisions, like the gradations of a circle, forever after “degrees”) and the work of Gabriel Fahrenheit and Anders Celsius, to Gillaume Amontons’ toying with the notion of the absence of heat, or absolute zero. At this point, though, Shachtman gets bogged down. He natters on about the process by which various European scientists strove to achieve Ultima Thule (a cold colder than deep space), the crude designs of the many early refrigerators, the drop-by-miserable-drop process of turning a gas into a liquid, and the petty bickering that riddled the community of cold researchers—proving only that it is impossible to squeeze the slightest zest from such topics. Contemporary research into the strange world of absolute zero is treated more concisely in a section that reads like a thriller. Enter the realm of quantum mechanics, where superconductivity and superfluidity and the total absence of magnetism bends our perception of the material world. The little magnet floating above a superconductive wafer in a dish of liquid nitrogen that made newspaper headlines was nothing compared to work Shachtman reports from Harvard, where a team operating in a near-absolute zero environment has managed to “slow the speed of light to a mere 38 miles per hour.” Something fishy is happening at -273 degrees Centigrade, playing havoc with time, space, and matter. Despite Shachtman’s uneven treatment, there emerges here a disarming portrait of an exquisite, ferocious, world-ending extreme.