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Absolute Zero: And the Conquest of Cold Hardcover – December 1, 1999


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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Ancient minds imagined the benefits of technological advances that wouldn't be realized for hundreds of years: "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 as Tom Shachtman points out in his Alfred P. Sloan-funded science history Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold, no one could conceive of how or why humans would make use of intense cold. "Cold was a mystery without an obvious source, a chill associated with death, inexplicable, too fearsome too investigate."

But as we now know, the mastery of cold has yielded innumerable advances, from the ubiquitous presence of refrigeration and air-conditioning to phenomenal leaps in superconductivity and subatomic research--in 1999 alone, Shachtman cites, a Harvard team used laser cooling to create an environment 50-billionths of a degree above zero, slowing the speed of light to just 38 miles per hour! Absolute Zero guides us skillfully through the fitful, nascent growth of this misunderstood, bastard branch of science, from the early accomplishments of Boyle, Joule, William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), and other lesser-knowns like Anders Celsius and Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit to the 20th century, the integration of ultracold research with quantum theory, and the most recent accomplishments in the field. Shachtman's approachable voice proves equally facile with both the science of cold and the mundane history of its technical and commercial uses, including the global ice trade and the work of one of cold's greatest commercial pioneers, a chemist named Clarence Birdseye. --Paul Hughes

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; First Edition edition (December 1, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395938880
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395938881
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.7 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,562,482 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Tom Shachtman has written or co-authored more than thirty-five books. His latest is GENTLEMEN SCIENTISTS AND REVOLUTIONARIES (2014), and his best-known are RUMSPRINGA: TO BE OR NOT TO BE AMISH (2006), ABSOLUTE ZERO AND THE CONQUEST OF COLD (1999), and three books with FBI chief profiler Robert K. Ressler, including the international bestseller WHOEVER FIGHTS MONSTERS. He has also written documentaries for ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and BBC, and has taught at New York University and lectured at Harvard, Stanford, Georgia Tech, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian's National History Museum.
AMERICAN ICONOCLAST: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ERIC HOFFER was published in November 2011. Presidential historian Herbert S. Parmet called it "as complete and masterful a biography as could be imagined."
His most recent award, in February 2010, was the American Institute of Physics' sciencewriting prize for his script of the two-hour documentary, ABSOLUTE ZERO AND THE CONQUEST OF COLD (PBS, 2008), based on his book of the same name. The New York Times Book Review characterized that book as written "with passion and clarity," the Library Journal called it "a truly wonderful book." In print in four languages, it is cited in many compilations of the best popular science books.
Publishers' Weekly labeled RUMSPRINGA: TO BE OR NOT TO BE AMISH, Publishers Weekly "not only one of the most absorbing ... ever written about the Plain People, but a perceptive snapshot of the larger culture in which they live." The Christian Science Monitor wrote, "Shachtman is like a maestro, masterfully conducting an orchestra of history, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and journalism together in a harmonious and evocative symphony of all things Amish."
Earlier Shachtman books in use as secondary texts include TERRORS AND MARVELS (2002), about science and technology in World War II; THE INARTICULATE SOCIETY (1995), about mass media and culture, recently re-issued in paperback; SKYSCRAPER DREAMS: THE GREAT REAL ESTATE DYNASTIES OF NEW YORK (1991), which Business Week characterized as "A fascinating history, showing how the city has been molded by the edifice complexes of risk-takers" and by The New York Times Book Review as "Superb reporting on the industry's wheeling and dealing"; and DECADE OF SHOCKS, 1963-1974 (1983).
AROUND THE BLOCK (1997), a socio-economic study of a single block in Manhattan over the course of a year, was called "a near-classic" by The Economist, by The New Yorker "a grand idea, splendidly executed," and by The Washington Post Book World a "thoughtful, interesting ... good and useful book."
Among his documentaries are six programs in the CBS science and technology series THE 21ST CENTURY. Documentaries that he also directed and produced, notably the CHILDREN OF POVERTY trilogy of one-hours about inner-city children, won first prizes at San Francisco, Atlanta, and New York International festivals, a half-dozen New York area Emmys, and were shown in Congress and at the White House.
He is a former chairman of The Writers Room in Manhattan, a trustee of the Connecticut Humanities Council, a founding director of the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area, and is currently a consultant to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation's science and technology initiatives.
Further details at www.tomshachtman.com

Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

39 of 40 people found the following review helpful By Jonathan A. Titus on January 8, 2000
Format: Hardcover
No figures? No diagrams? How can you tell an interesting story about the physics of low temperature without showing even simple line diagrams of some of the revolutionary apparatus used to reach such low temperatures? You'll find no photos of the main researchers, either, so you end up with names instead of personalities.
Characters pop in and out with confusing frequency, and I never got the feeling that some of them completely connect to the web of the story. Pioneer Carl Linde drops out on page 110 to reappear on page 153.
Technical errors, such as calling solid carbon dioxide "carbonic acid" (it's dry ice), and describing helium II, a low-temperature liquid, and then talking about helium-3, an isotope of helium, will confuse many readers. Esaki diodes haven't been called that in years--they're tunnel diodes. The errors don't detract from the main story, but technical people will find they get annoying.
An interesting story, but told in the form of "light" science. Was the author rushing to meet a deadline? Check it out of your library.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Duwayne Anderson on July 11, 2000
Format: Hardcover
One of the promotional statements on the book's jacket describes it as being similar to David Sobel's book "Longitude." I agree. There are some distinct similarities, and I think that if you liked "Longitude," you will probably enjoy "Absolute Zero" every bit as much.
Though this is a good book it's not quite what I was looking for. The book is strictly a history book, while I was looking for something that would have emphasized the scientific aspects more than Shachtman does. For example, the book describes the work by scientists to get as close as possible to absolute zero, but it never gives an adequate definition of what absolute zero really is. While it would have taken some mathematics and a little physics, a better description of the physics would have added considerably to this book. [For a good discussion of the physics - still at an introductory level - I suggest "Temperatures Very Low and Very High," by Mark W. Zemansky. This book, published by Dover, has only 127 pages. So the price is right, and it makes a nice companion volume (read it first) to Shachtman's book.]
Another thing that bothered me about this book is that it has no figures or illustrations. That's a big problem for a book that is constantly trying to describe this or that configuration of scientific equipment. There are at least a dozen places in the text where I found myself reading it and then reading it over again, trying to understand some convoluted description of apparatus when a simple diagram would have taken care of the problem.
A third problem I have with this book is the author's occasional lapse in describing scientific principles.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Douglas M. Murphy on June 5, 2001
Format: Paperback
For a book with this much detail about such a complex topic not to have a single illustration, diagram, or equation cannot be an oversight. I'm not sure if the author really wants to give you the illusion that he is allowing you to understand the relevant physics or not. He delves endlessly into the upbringing of the various scientists, and fails miseraby at making lay people understand what it is they dicovered. Many times he mentions scienfic findings in a context that makes one wonder if the equation or experiment turned out to be a cornerstone of later discovery or a red herring. I therefore conjecture that this book was meant to be primarily a history of competition and petty bickering among academics, and the title refers to how much you will learn about the physical forces responsible for low temperatures. The comparisons to "Longitude", (an excellent book), are apt in that both books focus on the egos and disputes involved, but "Longitude" traces the fight over the lifespan of one man, who ultimately triumphs despite long odds. If that book had been carried through with the same tone until it became a breathless account of how Bullova can outsell Rolex in 1992, I would also have given it 2 stars.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on April 3, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is a good book to read to clear your head of non-science, particularly if you are not a scientist. It achieves the goal of the Sloan Foundation funding, which is to popularize science by disconnecting it from the diagrams and equations that some of the other reviewers here are lamenting the absence of. Well, that's what made it so readable for me. I like science but not math. At least not sciency-math. We learn from this book that it is the businessmen who have fueled applied cold research, and many people who also are ignorant of math have benefitted from the resulting frozen food industry and from air conditioning. All products of the very deliberate conquest of Thule, very engagingly explained by the author. This book reminds me of how appropriate the chief guy (what's his name, "Lee"? Anyway, the guy who won't let you chew gum in the airport there) in Singapore's comments were in the Wall Street Journal, when they asked a cross section of famous people what the greatest invention of the last millenium has been. His reply: "Air conditioning." It all makes sense when you read this on the beach, before heading to your air conditioned condo, or to your air conditioned car, to get your keys to go get pre-cooled cokes from the refrigerator unit at the air conditioned 7-11, right next to the Slurpee machine and the little display of fresh fruit. I agree with some of the reviews that the book is a little disjointed, but offer that this in turn illuminates some of the idiosyncracies of several key scientists who would, for example, devote 15 years to trying to boil helium. Whatever you do for a living, compared to that, seems like a breeze. A cool breeze. Which you can feel without quantifying via incomprehensible, gnostic and exlusivist equations whose chief function is to blur this science beyond comprehensibility for long-winded reviewers like me.
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