A thermodynamic history traces temperature's effect on Universe, Earth and humans

PHILADELPHIA -- A new book by Gino Segr, a theoretical physicist at the University of Pennsylvania, makes temperature the theme of a journey through science, history and culture, revealing the surprisingly deep ways in which this subtle parameter has shaped humans and their world.

Segr's first book -- "A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals About the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe" (Viking, 2002) -- moves from the blazing hearts of faraway stars to physicists' drive toward absolute zero, from global warming to heat-sensitive proteins in the human body.

"Segr combines a historical perspective and a broad command of modern science to provide a lucid and novel synthesis of the concept of temperature," said science writer John Harte, author of "Consider a Spherical Cow" and "The Green Fuse."

Of all the fundamental measures of our universe, Segr identifies temperature as the newcomer. First measured in the 17th century, millennia after time and distance were first quantified, temperature is, in Segr's view, an appropriate yardstick for measuring the progress of humanity.

"If I were to employ temperature as my record for a narrative of civilization," Segr writes, "I would cite the ever-hotter fires humans made as they moved ... from the Stone Age's first fires to charcoal and then to the bellows that produced bronze and iron. Going further, I would reach the steam engine, the nineteenth century's great Bessemer furnaces that made steel, and finally the Nuclear Age. ... For the past 200 years, I could use as a marker the ever-lower temperatures achieved in laboratories as, one by one, all known species of gas were liquefied. As the millennium came to an end, the low-temperature scale reached billionths of a degree above absolute zero."

Ever wonder what's so special about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or why we consider room temperature to be around 70 degrees? Segr explains that people feel most comforta

Contact: Steve Bradt
University of Pennsylvania

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