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A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals About the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe Hardcover – July 1, 2002
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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
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
So much discussion about the author's background as a physicist, but then he omits such a basic physical concept about the changing universe?
A great disappointment,
If you really want to know the basic science of life and its evolution in terms of physical science do NOT get this book.
Instead, look to Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics, and Life.
If you really want to know the basic science of the universe and its evolution in terms of physicsal science do NOT get this book.
Instead turn to The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself
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. The dialogue between Einstein and Bohr could have been richer and more contextual, and the time-span of interesting events could have stretched somewhat longer.
A missed opportunity, however, is only one side of the coin, and a book can only be so long. One hopes that some equally competent author pieces together the somewhat difficult if specialized story of laser cooling of atoms, or delve into why low temperatures are so interesting in revealing the quantum nature of materials.
I actually bought this copy after borrowing it from the library for following up on the excellent bibliography and references. I also appeared animated enough about it for my wife to whisk my copy away for her commute...
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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but the wrong turns they made in getting there.Read more