The chilling reality of a significant scientific achievement (Book Review)

Title: Chilled – How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again; Author: Tom Jackson; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 272; Price: Rs. 499

What one measure can bring down the modern civilisation? It is not a military attack, or more indirect means like blocking the internet and telephone lines (though that will leave many people wondering what to hold or what to do with their thumbs) or disrupting the financial system. It can be as simple as shutting down the refrigerators.

How the fridge, many will ask. What is unique in the device standing quietly in a corner of most homes, and does not seem much before more flashier appliances, including those in the kitchen itself, like microwaves, ovens, or kettles. But there is one crucial difference. All of them heat things but it cools (and preserves) them. So to use a contemporary idiom, it succeeds by being cool.

As author Tom Jackson says, the fridge is something of a “Boo Radley” character, a significant character from the late Harper Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as “it’s normally pale, frequently indoors, seldom though about much but always there, and in the end (spoiler alert) we need it to make everything all right”.

But how, you will ask again. As this book shows, this is because a fridge is only a visible embodiment of a crucial technology – which not only enables it, or freezers down at the supermarkets, or air conditioners, but makes it capable of being “a gas factory, a rocket engine, a server farm and even a fusion bomb” and be “used to dig holes, make dams, track subatomic particles, image the brain and feed half the world (without chilling food, either)”.

But this technology didn’t happen automatically or overnight – as we learn, it involves a long tale of the human endeavour to make sense of what heat and cold are, discover they are opposing phenomenon (it may now seem obvious but wasn’t far from easy) and enable techniques to employ them at will. Heat and light may have been under human control for now but the battle over cold is just a century old – which makes it “clearer why paleolithic man had little trouble torching a wooden stick, but had to wait several dozen millennia before he could put an ice-lolly on it”.

The complicated story is told here with compelling insight but simply and accessibly – and with characteristic British wit (as the above quote indicates) – by Jackson, a Bristol-based science writer who “specialises in recasting science and technology into lively historical narratives”.

This is above all not a history of the fridge – which doesn’t appear till chapter 8 of the book’s 12 chapters – and though the book begins with cooling technologies used in the ancient Middle East, Southeast and East Asia, it deals more with chemistry and thermodynamics, or understanding matter and energy, and entropy, or the constant universal struggle between order and chaos.

And Jackson ably brings out the intelligence and the perseverance that marked man’s attempts to understand his world and master its environment, despite the missteps, and involves a veritable galaxy of profound thinkers, alchemists and scientists – Plato and Aristotle, Paracelsus, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, Galileo, Blaise Pascal, Issac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoiser, Gay-Lussac (of the gas laws), Michael Faraday, Fritz Haber and many others.

Even Albert Einstein makes an appearance, inventing a new (but complicated) type of refrigerator, along with Leo Szilard, otherwise known for playing a crucial role in figuring out the chain reaction of nuclear fission that made the atom bomb possible and Jackson dryly remarks that “never has a pair of novice refrigerator salesmen had such an impact”.

But the author doesn’t limit himself to famous scientists, also showcasing more obscure thinkers and inventors, businessmen like American “Ice King” Frederick Tudor, and historical characters like medieval French kings and popes that were involved with refrigeration. Even Swami Vivekananda turns out to have a connection.

Don’t get overawed by all the science promised – it is explained most lucidly, and leaves you impressed with the human intellect’s achievements. It might also make you treat fridges with more respect!

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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