Episode 1 The Conquest of Cold – opens in the 1600s when the nature of cold and even heat were a complete mystery. Are they different phenomena or aspects of some unified feature of nature? Are they added to a substance or qualities of the substance itself? The experiments that settled these questions helped stoke the Industrial Revolution, which exploited such fundamental insights as that heat always flows from hot to cold. The key moments in cold in this episode include: Cornelius Drebbel’s spooky trick of turning summer into winter for the English king, achieved in much the way that homemade ice cream is produced; Antoine Lavoisier’s battle with Count Benjamin Rumford over the caloric theory of heat, an intellectual contest set against the backdrop of the French Revolution, in which Lavoisier unfortunately lost his head; and Michael Faraday’s explosive experiments to liquefy gases, which established the principles that make refrigerators possible.
Episode 2 The Race For Absolute Zero – picks up the story in the late 19th century, when researchers plunged cold science to new lows as they succeeded in reaching the forbidding realm at which oxygen and then nitrogen liquefy. The master of this technology was Scottish chemist James Dewar, who pursued the holy grail of the field liquefying hydrogen at minus 253 C, just 20 degrees above absolute zero. When he succeeded, he faced the unexpected and even more daunting challenge of liquefying the newly discovered gas helium at a mere 5 degrees above absolute zero. However, he had a talented competitor Dutch physicist Heike Onnes and the ensuing race to the bottom of the temperature scale was as zealous as the contemporaneous race to the Earth’s poles. The end of the 20th century produced another low-temperature contest. No one had ever seen an exotic form of matter called a Bose Einstein condensate, which only forms at temperatures vanishingly close to absolute zero. But new techniques developed in the 1990s by Daniel Kleppner at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology set the stage for a race to create this truly bizarre substance and with it win the latest heat in the quest for cold.