History of Artificial Cold, Scientific, Technological and Cultural Issues

Volume 299 of the series Boston Studies in the Philosophy and History of Science pp 65-81


The Cryogenic Laboratory of Heike Kamerlingh Onnes: An Early Case of Big Science

  • Dirk van DelftAffiliated withDirector Museum Boerhaave, Professor Material Heritage of the Sciences, Leiden University Email author 

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“The polar regions of physics appeal to the fighting spirit of scientists in the same way that the extreme North and South Poles appeal to the explorer” (Kamerlingh Onnes H, De beteekenis van nauwkeurige metingen bij zeer lage temperaturen. IJdo, Leiden, p 5, 1904). The Leiden-based cold pioneer Heike Kamerlingh Onnes used these words in his founder’s day speech in 1904, the year in which he served as rector of the University of Leiden. Polar expeditions fired the imagination. Just 1 year earlier, the Norwegian adventurer Roald Amundsen had succeeded in navigating the north-west passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. His heroic contest with British explorer Ronald Scott to be the first to reach the South Pole still had to take place. At the start of 1912, Scott’s team found a Norwegian flag planted at the Pole by Amundsen 1 month previously; tragically, Scott’s team was not to survive the return journey (Huntford R, The last place on earth. Pan Books, London, 1985). At the same time, Kamerlingh Onnes was involved in a struggle that itself was not bereft of danger. The goal of his journey was the descent to the absolute zero of temperature, −273 °C.