What’s the Temp?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Nov 08, 2014

“It doesn’t make a difference what temperature the room is; it’s always room temperature.”
Stephen Wright

Minnesotans understand cold. And after living in the land of 10,000 lakes for 21 years, Evie and I also understand cold. Terms like “the tundra” and “Minnesnowta” and living among “the frozen chosen” were common to all of us.

For most of the winter season the little town of International Falls, Minn., up near the Canadian border, claims the bragging rights for being the coldest place in the state. I remember one winter when minus 62 degrees was recorded near there. To illustrate how cold it was, the weather reporter went outside and blew up a huge bubble which instantly froze as it slowly descended to the sidewalk where it remained for a while and then it collapsed and disappeared. After a while, however, you really did get used to the 20 and 30 degrees below zero and the wind chill which could get down to 50 and 75 degrees (or more) below zero. We even found ourselves saying that the reputation for cold was much worse than the reality. 

But there is cold and then there is cold. Vostok, Antarctica, is the home to the lowest temperature ever recorded on earth:  minus 129 degrees (in July 1983). This chilly weather is due to the exceptionally high speed of the arctic winds which can reach up to 200 mph.

On the Fahrenheit scale, water boils at 220 degrees and freezes at 32 degrees. The average temperature on Mars is minus 67 degrees; dry ice is minus 109 degrees; the day surface of the Moon is minus 253 degrees; liquid oxygen is minus 320 degrees; the night surface of the moon is minus 378 degrees; outer space is minus 455 degrees; absolute zero is minus 459.67 degrees.

The closest scientists have ever gotten to absolute zero was in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where they reached 810 trillionths of a degree Fahrenheit from absolute zero. Wolfgang Ketterle said, “To suck out all the energy, every last bit of it, and achieve zero energy and absolute zero — that would take the age of the universe to accomplish.”

Philo and Hero in ancient Egypt, discovered devices to measure hotness and coldness. In the early 1600s Francesco Sagredo, an Italian colleague of Galileo, applied a measuring device to an air thermoscope. 

Today there are scores of different types of thermometers. Even in our homes most of us have a candy thermometer and meat thermometer along with a medical thermometer. Richard Porter, a retired science teacher in Onset, Mass., built a massive collection of more than 5,000 thermometers.

Where did Fahrenheit and Celsius originate? German-born Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit invented the mercury thermometer in 1714 in Holland. On the Fahrenheit scale, the freezing point of water is 32 degrees and the boiling point is 212 degrees. The U.S. is the only nation that uses Fahrenheit temperatures for surface weather observations.

Anders Celsius, a Swedish astronomer, introduced his scale in 1742. For it, he used the freezing point of water as zero and the boiling point as 100.

Scientists use a third scale, called the “absolute” or Kelvin scale. This scale was invented by William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, a British scientist who made important discoveries about heat in the 1800s. From the number of absolute zero (273), the actual temperature is added for a total number. This scale helps clarify and resolve temperatures previously marked as “minus” or “plus.”

When we ask, “What’s the temperature?” few of us ever look at an actual thermometer. We check the news or digital evidence on the wall or even in our car. But wherever we look, these modern tools come to us from scientists who invented ways to calibrate and explain hot and cold.

I began this essay reflecting on the cold of Minnesota. You should know it also gets hot in Minnesota. It could have even been a Minnesotan who said, “I’m glad it’s finally hot enough to complain about how hot it is.”

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville, Pa. 
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