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When hell freezes over, now that's a good story


Adventures in the World's Frozen Places

By Bill Streever

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Little, Brown, 292 pages, $27.99, ISBN: 978-0316042918


The largest hailstone on record fell on Bangladesh, of all places, in 1896. It weighed almost a kilogram, but that's nothing. In 1849, a chunk of ice roughly seven metres in circumference fell near a farmhouse in Scotland. In Cold, Bill Streever will help you understand how these things happen.

As for the ice-encrusted boxer turtle that fell from the sky during a May, 1984, hailstorm in Bovina, Mississippi, Streever doesn't even try. It's there because it's a good story, which is mainly what Cold is about. This book is as good as "science writing" gets.

If you could distill Bill Bryson's gift for comic yarn-spinning with Jared Diamond's genius for sketching the relationships between ecologies and civilizations, you'd get something like Bill Streever, who also happens to be an eccentric biologist and cross-country skiing enthusiast from Anchorage, Alaska.

Let Streever follow his obsessions about what "cold" is, what it means and how it works, and you get Cold, which opens with Streever wading into the marrow-chilling water of Prudhoe Bay, 500 kilometres above the Arctic Circle, just to see what happens. He lasts a whole five minutes. Then off we go, through the grisly diaries of Arctic explorer Adolphus Greely, then up for a hike in the highlands of Scotland, then down into the microscopic space between temperature-sensitive enzymes inside fish.

Before you realize it's even happening, Streever is helping you navigate your way through the disputes about Harvard geologist Paul Hoffman's "snowball earth" hypothesis, which proposes that a hideous ice age covered almost the entire planet in vast blankets of snow about 700 million years ago.

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It's refreshing that Streever doesn't deal much with climate-change anxieties until the last chapter, and it's also good to read the words "greenhouse effect" in their original meaning and context; without that greenhouse action, much the our planet would be as inhospitable as Mars. It's also somehow morbidly satisfying to learn how the effect's discoverer, Joseph Fourier, came to his demise. Fourier hated the cold and took to wrapping himself in blankets, thinking that it was good for his health. In 1830, wrapped up this way, he tripped and fell down a flight of stairs to his death.

It's also helpful to read the climate change controversies properly and succinctly spelled out, with sufficient witness to the presence of nutters at both ends of the clamour. We've had a half a million years of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels never exceeding 300 hundred parts per million, but since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, we're now pushing 400. It matters.

But to explore the meaning of "cold" - indeed, to inquire into any number of things - the geology, biota and chemistry of the world are not easily examined in isolation. Just as "the first line of a poem affects the last and the last line affects the first," natural history and human history are complicated affairs. While Cold makes room for suitably gruesome stories about frostbite amputations and cannibalism from the diaries of plucky Arctic explorers, not all those stories are so macabre.

Fridtjof Nansen sailed from Norway with 13 companions in 1893, intending to reach the North Pole by deliberately stranding his small vessel in drifting polar ice. The ice wouldn't co-operate, so Nansen and a companion set off on foot. They ended up coming closer to the pole than anyone had ever been. Nansen's journey took three years. He spent the depths of winter trying to perfect the art of sleeping, and attained "as much as 20 hours' sleep in the 24." He gained weight.

No stirring John Franklin ballads for this guy.

The best bits of Cold come from accounts of how we know what we do about cold, and who found it out. The way snowflakes are formed, for instance. In 1862, the English snowflake-fancier James Glaisher went aloft in a balloon above London with an assistant, in order to sketch snowflakes at various elevations. At 29,000 feet, Glaisher fainted. His assistant, with his hands frozen stiff, couldn't pull the gas-release cord to get the balloon to descend, so he used his teeth, and the balloon came back down.

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That's how we know something about snowflakes, but it's astonishing we know much at all about the early experiments to discover how cold things can get. The 19th-century scientists engaged in the mad race for "absolute zero" were constantly blowing things up and starting fires.

It wasn't until 1924 that Satyendra Nath Bose and Albert Einstein figured out that at extremely low temperatures, the wave functions of atoms would overlap and start acting like one big atom. The result would be something new and weird - not a solid, not a liquid and not a gas, either. But "absolute zero" is a bit like the speed of light - nothing can ever go quite that fast. Nothing can ever really get that cold, but you can get close.

It turns out that at fifty-billionths of a degree above absolute zero - roughly minus 273 Celsius - will produce something called the Bose-Einstein condensate, a thick glob of atoms condensed into one. It looks like "a translucent cherry made of a glowing cloud of very cold rubidium."

A 2001 Nobel Prize for conjuring this strange thing, which "could never have existed naturally anywhere in the universe," went to Eric Cornell and Carl Wieman. The two physicists were standing on the shoulders of Einstein and Bose, and James Dewar, who almost blew himself up in his laboratory in 1886, and Heike Onnes, who liquefied helium in 1908, and Michael Faraday, who liquefied chlorine in 1823.

Among the results of all these efforts is cryosurgery, the process for recycling old car tires, liquefied natural gas, the rocket fuel that put people on the moon, and air conditioning, which allows modern civilization to flourish in the heat of the summer, from Toronto to Los Angeles and from Miami to Singapore.

Another result is Bill Streever's Cold, which is a grand way of coming to know about it all.

Terry Glavin is a journalist and author. His most recent book is

Waiting for the Macaws: And Other Stories from the Age of Extinctions



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