Friday, January 04, 2008

NOVA Tackles Hot and Cold

The difference between the warm bed and the cold floor in the morning; the painful reminder of the hot stove or the icy metal pole; or even the part of the world we choose to live in; it all comes down to these things we call hot and cold. Yet few of us outside the physical sciences really know what these…things (?)…are. Seriously ask yourself if you know whether or not hot and cold are the same phenomena, or two separate effects. How easy would it be for you to figure out how a refrigerator works; and why do you plug it in if electricity tend to make things hot? And once you’ve mastered those concepts: how do you reach the coldest temperature possible?

NOVA is airing a two part special called “Absolute Zero: The Story of the Harnessing of Cold and the Race to Reach the Lowest Temperature Possible.” The two, one hour specials explore the mysterious realm of the coldest of cold. Part one starts at the turn of the 16th century and explores the first pursuits of scientists to understand hot and cold; the second half follows things up to the present day as scientists look for ways to get within fractions of a degree from absolute zero. Catch it on PBS Tuesday, January 8 and 15 at 8pm EST.

I highly recommend checking out NOVA’s website for some great articles in relation to the special (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/). Did you know refrigeration is one of the three inventions that most impacted the formation of cities? The three essentials were elevators (allowing for tall buildings = lots of people in small spaces), the telegraph [and later the telephone](allowing manufacturers and businesses to be away from their consumers and/or their producers), and refrigeration (so you didn’t have to have a farm nearby). The article points out that the locomotive often gets the most credit for settling the west, but refrigeration was a comparable development.


My favorite of the articles addresses the burning question: if there is an absolute zero (the coldest possible temperature) is there an absolute hot? Is there a limit to the hottest temperature in the universe? Some say such a temperature is 25 degrees of magnitude hotter than the core of the sun…while others think such an improbable number proves there’s no such thing in nature. There seems to be no solid answer, yet the possibilities are fascinating, and have created quite a stir in physics, astrophysics and cosmology. (This photo shows the sun in ultraviolet light, giving a cool tint to the red hot sphere).

Picture Credit: http://www.mudsugar.com/uploads/a_christmas_story.jpg

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/zero/hot.html

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