Dr. Fred Bortz

A Matter of Degrees:
What Temperature Reveals About the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe

by Gino Segre

(Viking, 2002, $24.95, 320 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

Return to Science Shelf Home Page

Note: All materials on this site are the copyrighted property of Alfred B. Bortz. Individuals may print single copies of reviews or columns for their own use. For permission to publish or print multiple copies of any of the materials on this site, please contact the author by e-mail.

coverShop for this title at discount price and support this site

University of Pennsylvania professor Gino Segre, a noted theoretical physicist from a distinguished family of physicists, makes his literary debut with a useful addition to the popular scientific literature. Unlike most books in the genre, which have a narrow focus, "A Matter of Degrees: What Temperature Reveals About the Past and Future of Our Species, Planet, and Universe" covers an enormous range. It almost seems as if Prof. Segre feared he'd never get another chance to publish for this audience, and thus made sure to include all of his favorite science stories in a single volume.

The book's scope is matched by a temperature range from mere billionths of a degree above absolute zero to billions of degrees. Near the frigid limit, normally microscopic quantum-mechanical phenomena emerge as macroscopic properties of matter -- superconductivity and its technological applications being the best famous.

Four seconds after the "Big Bang", the primordial Universe cooled to a billion degrees, where light nuclei, primarily hydrogen and helium, emerged from the indistinguishable chaos of matter and energy. Today, nature creates that temperature and the nuclei of the remaining elements only in the largest stars, whose death throes we observe as supernovas.

In between the extremes, Dr. Segre explores, among other topics, the measurement of temperature, the way organisms on Earth maintain their body temperatures, the role temperature has played in the evolution of life on Earth and will play in the future, global warming, and organisms called archaea and extremophiles whose existence has broadened our view of possible creatures that may thrive on other worlds.

The wealth of stories is both a strength and a weakness, because most science readers crave more detail than Dr. Segre has room to present. Yet he still manages to tweak their imaginations with accessible and engaging writing, quiet humor, and occasional "I-didn't-know-that" moments.

A powerfully personal closing section reveals his reasons for writing the book. "Scientific research," he writes, ". . . continues to be a great pursuit, one of the ways we can, I hope, better the lot of ourselves and other living creatures. More than that, it is an outlet for our dreams, a chance to see more of the connections that nature employs to create the world we live in."

Though Dr. Segre has spent much of his professional life in the study of elusive particles called neutrinos, he has never lost his connection to the universal scheme into which they fit. Perhaps his next book will share more detail about those tiny, nearly massless sprites. His first has cultivated an audience that will be eager to read it.

Fred Bortz is the author of eight books for young readers, including Techno-Matter: The Materials Behind the Marvels, winner of the 2002 American Institute of Physics Award for Children's Science Writing, co-winner of the award for best Grade 7-12 Science book for 2001 from the Society of School Librarians International, and a recommended title on the New York Public Library list of Books for the Teen Age.