Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold  
   
 
 

 

 

 
About the Series

Absolute Zero, a two-part PBS television special, will demonstrate how civilization has been profoundly affected by the mastery of cold.

The documentaries, which are a unique blend of science, cultural history and adventure story, will explore key concepts, significant individuals and events in the field of low-temperature physics and the enormous impact that the mastery of cold has had on society through such technologies as air conditioning, refrigeration and liquefied gases.

Absolute Zero will feature the struggles of philosophers, scientists and engineers over four centuries as they attempted to understand the nature of cold, to explore its deepest reaches, to create the “cold technologies” that have transformed society and to seek a deeper understanding of matter itself.

Underwritten by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and based largely on Tom Shachtman’s acclaimed book, Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold, the epic story follows a trail of eccentric characters ranging from a 17th century court magician whose alchemy brought air conditioning to Westminster Abbey, to the original Captain Birdseye who invented frozen food.

Recreation form filing of James Dewar giving a lectureProduced by British Emmy Award winner David Dugan, in collaboration with Meredith Burch of Meridian Productions in Washington, D.C., the television special will demonstrate how science, fueled by serendipitous insight and sheer determination, moves forward -- at times fitfully -- gradually advancing our understanding of the world. The programs will illuminate the very human process of science by focusing on fascinating characters, both familiar (Einstein, Fahrenheit and Galileo) and neglected (Boyle, Dewar and Onnes).

Absolute zero became the Holy Grail of low temperature physicists who wanted to find out what happened as the temperature plunged into domains unlike those of the rest of the physical world. Near absolute zero, they entered a strange quantum world where electricity flows freely without resistance and fluids defy gravity.

According to special's principal investigator and renowned physicist Russell Donnelly, “Life in the 21st century is powerfully shaped by this mastery of cold. Absolute Zero will call long-overdue attention to the remarkable strides that have been made in low-temperature physics, a field that has produced 27 Nobel Prizes. It will explore the ongoing interplay between science and technology through vivid historical examples including refrigerators, ice machines, frozen foods, liquid oxygen and nitrogen as well as much colder fluids such as liquid hydrogen and liquid helium. It will illuminate how technological mastery of the cold was achieved and how human society has evolved in its employment of cold.”

The first program “The Conquest of Cold” will chronicle the major discoveries leading towards the mastery of cold, beginning with King James I’s court magician, Cornelius Drebbel, who managed to air condition the largest interior space in the British Isles in 1620. Other stories will include the first “natural philosopher,” Robert Boyle, a founder of the Royal Society in Great Britain; the Grand Duke Ferdinand II de Medici’s involvement in the creation of the first thermometer; the establishment of the laws of thermodynamics by three young scientists, Sadi Carnot, James Joule and William Thomson; and Michael Faraday’s critical achievement in liquefying several other gases which set the stage for the commercial application of cold to refrigeration and air conditioning.

Program two, “The Race for Absolute Zero” will focus on the fierce rivalry that took place in the laboratories in Britain, Holland, France and Poland as they sought the ultimate extreme of cold. The program will follow the extraordinary discoveries of superconductivity and superfluidity and the attempt to produce a new form of matter that Albert Einstein predicted would exist within a few billionths of degrees above absolute zero.
Onnes in his lab

According to Executive Producer Meredith Burch, “Absolute Zero is guided by an international team of renowned scientists, researchers, educators and historians of science. It will chronicle the major discoveries over four centuries of research that have produced stunning scientific insights and applications which have truly revolutionized the world we live in.”

For example, city populations rose dramatically in the 20th century with the creation of refrigeration and air conditioning. Skyscrapers and assembly lines supported greater productivity. Refrigeration allowed larger numbers of people to exist at greater distances from the sources of food and air conditioning allowed for large areas of the world to become more habitable.

Space exploration was based not only on liquefied gases for rocket fuel, but also on technologies merging from the increasing understanding of how matter functioned in the extreme cold. They underlay the development of mechanisms for cooling to balance the intense heat of the sun in space.

Medical sensing technologies such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which have revolutionized the diagnosis of disease, depend on superconducting magnets created through the use of super-cold liquid helium. Low-temperature physics has also played a critical role in the development of television, cell phones and computers.

Absolute Zero is a collaborative effort of the University of Oregon’s Cryogenic Helium Turbulence Laboratory and Twin Cities Public Television, with film production by Meridian/Windfall Productions.

 
 
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