Thursday, February 08, 2007

did you ever wonder why Daniel Fahreheit placed the freezing point at 32, giving much space and consideration to all those temps between zero and 32?

It's because he was Polish. There, now you know. And so, on this once again colder than a polar bear's natural habitat day, I give you the story of why it is that we must call it "only" a "zero" kind of day.

february 07 060

A student came to me after class and recounted this story: the UW School of Pharmacology was recruiting students this week. To the admitted students who were to come up for a look-see it sent the following message: bring your coats! It’s going to be zero in Madison (or something to that effect). A southern type glanced at the message and threw her light jacket into the overnight. Zero. Wow. That’s when ice starts to form. That’s, like, when it no longer rains.

She came to Madison and discovered that the zero was a Fahrenheit zero. She never left her hotel room.

My student has kinfolk in the science world and so he knows stuff about physics that only the scientifically inclined would know. He told me that Mr. Fahrenheit placed the zero where he did because that is where he felt utter cold should begin. That seemed like a fishy urban legend and so I said good-bye to my student and dashed to the trusty Internet to find out the answer to this puzzling query: why did good old Fahrenheit give us the odd scale that we have now?

It's because Mr. Fahrenheit was Polish.

You don't believe me? Ocean readers are such skeptics! Read about it here, in an article by Maddox ("Blinded by Science" on I know, most people do not follow links. Okay, here are the relevant paragraphs (emphases added). Read them. They're oddly funny. At least to this Pole they are.

Rømer was the man who in 1676 had first measured the speed of light, and his temperature scale, when he unveiled it in 1701, was a predictably abstract affair, of use principally to scientists. Water, Rømer declared, would henceforth be said to boil at 60 degrees and to freeze at . . . at . . . well, at 7.5 degrees. Yes, that's right: Seven and a half.(…)

To a young German physicist named Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit, the cold-blooded Rømer scale seemed to cry out for a sister scale, if not an outright replacement, usable by the general public. His alternative, published in 1724, was a masterpiece of populism, a temperature scale for the masses. Rather than worrying about what temperatures made various substances do what under laboratory conditions, Fahrenheit simply used 100 degrees to denote the highest temperature reached with any kind of regularity in Western Europe, and 0 degrees for the lowest. The scale was an instant hit, and for good reason. For the first time in history, a generation was able to know the thrill of watching temperatures climb toward 100 degrees over the course of a sweltering summer.

Better still, the Fahrenheit scale made it possible at last to generalize about temperature in a way that resonated with the human experience. It's difficult for us future dwellers to imagine, but prior to 1724, statements like "It'll stay in the 60s through the end of the week, and on Saturday? Dust off that barbecue, people, we're headed into the 70s. Chuck? Yolanda?" were simply unknown. You could say it was hot. You could say it was cold. You could even say it was 13.75 degrees Rømer, but the romantic and beautifully intuitive concept of a heat wave in the 90s was futurespeak.

Indeed, Fahrenheit's gift to the world was so liberating and transformative that people were willing to overlook its glaring flaw. At lower temperatures—those one might encounter during, say, winter—the intuitive poetry of the Fahrenheit scale disappears. You don't need to be a hydrologist to appreciate that there's a qualitative difference between the world at 34 F and the world at 31 F and that the Fahrenheit scale does nothing to reflect that. Glance at Fahrenheit's biography, and the reason for this jumps out. Although he lived and worked in Germany, Fahrenheit was born in Danzig, Poland, later named Gdan´ sk, the icy harbor on the shores of the Baltic whose weather would provide such a poignantly bleak backdrop to the Solidarity protests of the 1980s. To a native Danzigian, the temperature at which water froze was a thing of no consequence, certainly not when compared with the majestic, definitive coldness of his boyhood winters, and so Fahrenheit assigned it the not otherwise distinguished number of 32.