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Chilled - Tom Jackson ****

I was inclined to call Chilled a good, solid, old-fashioned popular science book. But I'm concerned that people will get the wrong idea, as I meant this as a positive thing. 'Solid' is often taken to mean stodgy and dull, but here it's a matter of being comprehensive and interesting in covering the topic of cold and coldness from the earliest ice houses of prehistory to the superconducting magnets of the Large Hadron Collider. 

As for 'old-fashioned' what I meant is that the book is full of stories about the history of humanity's relationship with coldness, and producing cold where and when we want it. I've read quite a lot of trendy popular science books that are much more about the story of the writer, with only a tangential relationship to the science. While there is plenty of storytelling here, it is all about the scientific and technical content, and about the people in history (and there have been some wonderful, dramatic near failures, particular among American ice shippers) who are concerned with that science and technology. As you may gather, this is the kind of 'old-fashioned' I very much like.

Because 'cooling' is inextricably entwined with 'heating', there is a lot here about heat and thermodynamics. But still the main thrust (and most of the stories) concern our attempts to cool things down, whether it's a summertime drink or an MRI scanner. Some of the historical material is fascinating. When, for instance, the first attempts were made to take ice to the Caribbean it was a flop because no one knew what to do with it. But they did love ice-cream. And there's inevitably a lot here about fridges, where there's a whole lot of physics going on - not to mention some unintended consequences of using far too much air conditioning (really just an fridge split into two pieces). Plenty of good stuff to get your teeth into. Solid, in the sense that ice is, but water isn't.

I have a few small criticisms, but they are small. The author has a tendency sometimes to get into list mode, telling us this person did that, and this other person did the other, without enough depth to make the narrative interesting. That's by no means all of the book, but where it happens it jars a little. Also, for me, Tom Jackson writes just a bit too far towards the end of the spectrum where the science is hardly explained, but just wondered at. We don't get into enough depth in exploring the science behind the technologies of chill. 

The final irritant is probably the fault of the publisher. There are comments on both the front and back covers by Tony Hawks. Now, my first inclination was to wonder what a pro skateboarder had to do with the science of cooling. But it turns out that this is Tony Hawks the comedian and raconteur. Ah, well, it's obvious what his connection is. Well, no, it isn't. Apparently he did a TV show and/or book where he went round Ireland with a fridge, and this is the only reason for having him along to give the book a puff. It seems, to say the least, a little tenuous.

So, as long as you didn't think this was a book about the chilled sport of skateboard (man), I can wholeheartedly recommend Chilled as an exploration of the history of an under-represented science and technology.



Review by Brian Clegg


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