History of Artificial Cold, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Issues

Volume 299 of the series Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science pp 1-17


Historiographical Issues in the History of Cold

  • Kostas GavrogluAffiliated withDepartment of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Athens Email author 

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“Corpses frozen for future rebirth” ran the title of an article describing the gory business of promising immortality. Ample supply of liquid nitrogen and some technical issues in the freezing process itself, were sufficient to do the trick. The presence of cold in our cultural ethos, has not been exclusively associated with promises of deathlessness. In Dante’s Inferno, Satan is portrayed as a giant beast, half of his body immersed in ice at the center of Hell. The Satan beats his wings, and the cold wind is a continuous reminder that there is not an instant of reprieve for the sinners condemned in the Ninth Circle, where the worst of sinners, those who betrayed their benefactors, are in perpetual suffering. The dominance of cold, however, is not confined, only, to one of the emblematic works of literature of the western world. The Cold War dominated politics for almost half a century (1947–1991) and after it was over what dominated the discussions among historians and political scientists was the attempts to understand what actually happened during those politically scorching years. Cold fusion – the possibility to have endless energy from the light nuclei with almost no energy input –, a fantasy entertained by few, caught the imagination of millions for a short moment when it was announced in 1989. Alas, compared with the eternity of the Ninth Circle and the intensity of the panic inflicted to the West by the Soviet Union, cold fusion had a minuscule life-time. Materials exhibiting zero electrical resistance would have been at the very heart of another kind of fantasy where, for example, electrical current would be transmitted with almost no losses, trains would travel on these materials with almost no need to supply energy to keep them running. The discovery of superconductivity in 1911 gave an end to these fantasies, since the cost at maintaining the temperatures required in order to make some materials superconducting was unimaginably high. Any practical large scale commercial utilization of such materials appeared to be an impossible dream, until 1986 when such hopes were rekindled by a new generation of materials which were found to exhibit superconducting properties in very high temperatures, still low enough to have a practical use. The genie of a superconductor at room temperatures, however, was out of the bottle.