Context Matters

On an icy winter day in Boston, Massachusetts, and my dear friend who was a post-doc at MIT said to me “actually, it isn’t that cold.”

“How could it possibly not be that cold?” I said. Mind you we grew up in sub-tropical climes. “Well, it is like two hundred something degrees Kelvin,” he said. In his lab they don’t operate in Celsius or Fahrenheit. They don’t particularly care about the cold that we feel; he works on superconductivity, and his focus is on atoms and even smaller, sub-atomic stuff[i]. At zero degrees Kelvin molecular motion basically stops, there is no thermal activity. In freezing Boston that day though, my friend assured me there were plenty of atoms jostling around us, vibrating and making it “hot”, like positive two hundred degrees Kelvin hot. I had a mental cutscene to the North Pole, with huskies, skis and sleds, amidst frozen whitespace where I say: “What does Kelvin say now?” And anticipating a response like “well, ain’t as much atomic jostling here. Yep, it’s getting there.” He was using labspeak in the real world; or maybe it was me who was using pidgin-science in the field. Either way, context matters.


[i] The latest science on superconductivity involves tinkering with atoms at colder and colder temperatures. See this article for a backgrounder: Howard, Jacqueline. "Absolute Zero? Scientists Push Atoms Colder, To Record-Setting 'Negative Temperature' Realm." The Huffington Post., 04 Jan. 2013. Web. 06 May 2013. <>. One of the key applications is next generations engines, ones would be far more efficient than current internal combustion engines, which lose maybe three quarters of the energy put into them to heat.