Thursday, January 26, 2012

A well-wintered life

(WARNING: substantial chemistry content. Theologians and others take a deep breath, I promise there will not be a quiz and that there's a point beyond the chemistry.)

The other day the Boy (who I'm coaching in thermochemistry for Science Olympiad) wondered why the freezing point of water on the Fahrenheit scale was 32o, and the boiling point 212o? (The Celsius scale is pinned to the freezing and boiling points of water - a sensible scheme.) I admit I had never given it much thought. Turns out that zero on the Fahrenheit scale is defined as the temperature of a "frigorific" mixture of water, ice and ammonium chloride in a 1:1:1 ratio. (There are many such mixtures, which produce baths of a particular temperature, useful in the days before refrigerators when you needed to produce artificial cold.)

I had never encountered the work before despite years of teaching thermodynamics (frankly, it sounds a bit too pseudo-sciency for my taste - and I do have opinions about what sounds good in a science term) and headed for the OED (the online version, not the one that Math Man brought as his dowry), to find that it is attributed to Robert Boyle in the 17th century.

As it turns out, I was more intrigued by a turn of phrase in one of the quotes given under the figurative meaning: "a well-wintered life..." I tracked down the 19th century reference in Google books to find that well-wintered meant reflective. Winter was a time to be indoors, a time of darkness, a time of year that encouraged — nigh on insisted upon — introspection and stillness: no central heating, no electric lights in those days. You stayed indoors if you could and wrapped up.

How well-wintered is my life? I'm on sabbatical leave, wrapped up in my writing and in my research, but also trying to spend some time in reflection about life. And I'm starting to warm to the idea of wintering over, of letting some things sit out this time. What will happen if I let the ground in which these seeds are planted heave up with the frost, be blanketed with snow, and softened by the melt? God knows.

[Aside: The author rather appallingly posits the opposite as well, those living in the tropics, where light and warmth abound no matter what the season are doomed to shallow living.]

Photo is from a well-wintered walk at Wernersville.


  1. There are two NOVA specials you should watch. They are often available either on the PBS website or on Netflix.

    The first is "The Conquest of Cold" which talks about all these things including inventing the thermometer and how scientists finally decided that cold and warm were not elements. It's fascinating. The other is "Absolute Zero" about the race to achieve that temperature.

    Both deal with nature of science issues such as who's theory is accepted and why, battling egos, etc. Great fun! I bought the DVD because there is IMO a big shortage of chem relevant videos.

  2. P.S. Never too much Chemistry for some of us!

  3. Tomorrow's plan is to write a more chemical bit, Kathyrn, and now I've got two more good resources to add to it...

    The joy of chemistry :)

  4. I'm no chemist (although I did love 11th grade chemistry and did better than I thought I would... it was the glassware. Loved that!)but I love this post.

    I would like to check out the NOVA specials that Kathryn mentioned.

  5. Frigorific is, if I may, an absolutely frigorific term. (And my word verification is achoo, which bespeaks, perhaps, another kind of well-wintering.)

    I think I might have to send you the reflection I gave yesterday. We're on the same wavelength.

  6. kb, it is chilling, for sure....

  7. may we all be well-wintered. I checked out a book about the history of The Conquest of Cold but did not like the style of writing, so I am reading a history of the development of quantum physics instead.