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A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals about the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe Paperback – July 1, 2003


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books (July 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 014200278X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0142002780
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.7 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #113,199 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Length and mass are measurements we understand intuitively, but temperature is fleeting and elusive. Why is it so hard to measure compared with other fundamentals? Why do living things require such a narrow range of temperatures to go about their business? How cold is deep space, anyway? Physicist Gino Segre knows how to keep interest flowing along; even when he's explaining the intricacies of small-scale physics, he takes time to ground it in real life. His scope is wide--from the beginning (and ending) of the universe to the history of life on Earth, little falls outside his purview. Yet the book touches on so many subjects of immediate interest to 21st-century humans (high fevers, sports medicine, and the next scheduled Ice Age, to name a few) that it's compelling even to those who don't care about the Big Questions. --Rob Lightner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Segre, a theoretical physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, begins this far-ranging survey of the history of science by explaining how living organisms maintain stable temperatures and showing how adaptations to hot or cold habitats influenced animal evolution. Subsequent chapters cover a wide range of topics such as the development of heat-measuring technologies; influences of temperature on earth's climate, including speculations on "snowball" and "slushball" earth scenarios and the greenhouse effect; survival mechanisms of thermophiles and psychrophiles (bacteria that tolerate extremely high and extremely low temperatures, respectively); and the role of neutrinos, tiny particles produced in the core of the sun, in explaining solar dynamics. Segre observes that the history of human civilization can be read as a story of the "ever-hotter fires humans made as they moved from hunter-gatherers to villagers to toolmakers," while the formation of the universe can be seen as a vast cooling, from one hundred billion degrees at one hundredth of a second after the big bang to the cooler temperatures at which neutrons and protons could bind together (one billion degrees) and some 300,000 years later hydrogen and helium atoms could form (3,000 degrees). While some of Segre's material will be a challenge to readers without knowledge of college-level physics, he brings humor and passion to his subject and excels in showing its relevance to both current policy and future research.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

It gives you an idea of why things work the way they do, instead of someway else.
Brian Eckerman
Segre writes with such elegance, clarity and charm that it is easy to forget that this is a work we read for self-improvement rather than self-indulgence.
Robert J. Hard
The book is excellent, both an entertaining reading for people interested in the relationahip of ScieNce and history and also for teaching purposes.
Susan V. Meschel

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

26 of 26 people found the following review helpful By Robert J. Hard on September 27, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
It is hard to say which is more compelling: A Matter of Degrees' strength as a book of science history or its strength as a work of literature. Segre writes with such elegance, clarity and charm that it is easy to forget that this is a work we read for self-improvement rather than self-indulgence.
In a step-by-logical-step fashion, Segre leads the reader first to appreciate the importance of temperature and its regulation in living things into an understanding of thermo dynamics generally. We see things from the standpoint of giants like Newton, Davey, Rumford, Carnot and Kelvin, through moderns like Einstein, Bohr, Heizenberg, et al.--all the way up to discoveries circa 2001. We also see how even the great ones have stumbled and struggled with their misapprehensions, and will doubtless continue to do so.
From the warmth of mammalian bodies to the warmth of the greehouse effect, from the shriek of the first steam engines to the flickering near-nothingness of the neutrino, Segre ties the first to the last to show how an understanding of temperature leads to an understanding of origin. And by that I do not mean the origin of life--I mean the origin of everything.
This book is for people who--
A) Did not take any science courses in college but wish they had;
B) Did take science courses in college but wish they hadn't;
C) Want to see how a master teacher teaches his area of mastery; or
D)Are even passingly curious about How It All Began and How It All Might End.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By D. Archibald on December 16, 2002
Format: Hardcover
This book is subtitled 'What temperature reveals about the past and future of our species, planet, and universe' and when I picked it up I imagined it was going to be about global warming and all that terrible stuff. Fortunately, while he does mention that dire subject, it's far from the only thing Mr Segrè has to offer. Instead his book is a consideration of the effect of temperature in all sorts of things, from the human body--warm-bloodedness and fever--to quantum mechanics. In between it takes in black smoker ecosystems, the birth and death of stars and the big bang. Segrè divides his efforts between explaining the science itself and giving us the history behind its original discoveries and does both rather well, showing a brisk pace and an engaging sense of humor the whole time.
Obviously, given the amount of material covered, some things are described in rather less detail than one might wish, and the transitions sometimes left me wondering if the author was going to come back and say more about a subject; but all that does is encourage the reader to pursue one bit or other further in other books, which is a reasonable thing for a general-audience book like this is. There were also sections--most notably the bits about extra dimensions, conditions at the time of the big bang, and multiple universes interacting like sheets (something like that..)--that lost me pretty completely. But Segrè is a good enough writer that instead of giving up I plowed ahead, and soon enough I was back on firm ground. And the end of the book, about the effects of very low temperatures on the behavior of molecules, was one of the clearest explanations of quantum mechanics I've ever read.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By James East VINE VOICE on February 15, 2006
Format: Paperback
An entertaining read about the discovery and history of temperature. Along with the usual suspects like Galileo, Copernicus, Newton and others, you are also introduced to many other somewhat less heralded scientific figures that have made great contributions to science. Some of the more interesting sections in this fascinating book were, the origin and discovery of aspirin, the invention of the thermometer, what hydrothermal vents tell us, to temperature shift extinctions. Overall, a very quick read with lasting anecdotal impressions.

Why read this book?

To quote Steven Weinberg "The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy." This book opens both new insights into and of the world we live in.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Kaushik Basu on March 31, 2008
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is a wonderful account relating the role temperature plays in widely varying disciplines, ranging from physiology to cosmology. Though Segre is a physicist and quips that physics is pretty much the family business, his understanding and enthusiasm for a broad range of problems under the blanket of science is truly astonishing. The majority of non-fiction works in this genre tend to focus on a relatively narrow area which often happens to be the author's domain of expertise. The more general approach this book takes without watering things down is truly refreshing.
The tone reflects the excitement of the non-specialist, surely. Also, in describing the events and often surprising turns a field has taken, Segre's sketches of the personalities involved are colorful without relying too much on what often turns out to be insider perspectives. While there is a place for that, and several writers, particularly David Lindley, has used it to sharp advantage, Segre's account skims over the trees for the forest.
What I found very noticable was the even balance between weighing the current state of knowledge with the absence of any overarching statement about where things are headed. This caution, for example, was not something that was expressed in James Gleick's 'chaos,' for example. For all its novelty of expression, the basic science was at times suspect, as practitioners like David Ruelle has pointed out in his 'chance and chaos.'
While the narrative for the subjects like geothermal vents and global warming were quite seamless, I thought Segre's treatment of low-temperature physics was a little stilted and disjointed. This was a bit of a dissapointment because one would expect a somewhat more cohesive picture from a well-known neutrino physicist.
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