No, it’s not what I felt like in ninth grade when I walked on stage for the first time in a school play with my fly open.
It’s also not what my high school football coach called me after I dropped the winning touchdown pass in overtime the first game of my senior year. (He probably had a more suitable – and stronger – name for me that night.)
Absolute zero, in case you didn’t already know, is what scientists define as “theoretically, the lowest possible temperature.” More specifically: “Absolute zero is a state at which the enthalpy and entropy of a cooled ideal gas reach their minimum value, taken as zero kelvins.”
Assuming you had a passing level of interest in that sentence (to be honest, it lost me at “enthalpy”) let’s continue: “At zero kelvins, the fundamental particles of nature have minimum vibrational motion, retaining only quantum mechanical, zero-point energy-induced particle motion.”
Still with me? Doesn’t matter; if you’re falling behind, you’ll have to catch up on your own, or see me after class. Moving on: “The theoretical temperature is determined by extrapolating the ideal gas law; by international agreement, absolute zero is taken as −273.15° on the Celsius scale, which equals −459.67° Fahrenheit. The corresponding Kelvin and Rankine temperature scales set their zero points at absolute zero by definition.”
OK, now that most (if not all) of us feel like absolute zeros (or what my high school football coach called me after that overtime loss, maybe it was “Kelvin” or “Rankine”), let’s get out of the classroom and talk “real world.”
When I woke up Sunday morning, the outdoor temperature at my house was -9o F., with a -28o wind chill. This morning, it was 5 below, with a -22 wind chill. A far cry (and a veritable heat wave) compared to whatever the above paragraphs tried rather unsuccessfully to explain to me when I looked it up, but really, really cold, nonetheless.
As I stood on the front porch, woefully underdressed for the weather while the dog sniffed and searched for just the right spot to relieve herself, that term – absolute zero – rose to the top of the useless pile of things stacked on the cluttered, disorganized desk that is my brain.
While scientists like Kelvin and Rankine (or more likely, folks who are still alive) will argue that absolute zero occurs at −459.67° Fahrenheit and not (apparently) one degree warmer, I’ll submit that a case could be made that, given the levels of enthalpy and entropy (their words) I witnessed during those brief moments on the porch Sunday morning and again today, maybe there’s another, more practical definition; one we in the non-egghead world can wrap our heads around.
Try this on for size: Absolute zero – in everyday life and using modern parlance – is the temperature, including corresponding wind chill, in which a human– if given the option to do so – will absolutely stay inside, not leaving the house for any reason.
Doesn’t that seem more palatable, like something we could actually use? Truth be told, I don’t care much about enthalpy and entropy (mainly because I’m not sure what they mean), but I do care that it’s so damn cold right now that I don’t want to leave home, and if I did, I’m not sure it would be a wise decision.
Notwithstanding the fact that I found myself on the front porch in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt as the dog peed, cold like this -- in a word -- sucks. But more than that, it absolutely sucks. And while I have in my lifetime experienced colder conditions, and I’m sure some of you who live north of the 43rd parallel (where I’m sitting right now) might argue that “You don’t really know cold until you’ve lived through a [fill in your “sucks to be you” location here] winter,” let me tell you, it’s still damn cold. Cold enough for me to say no to going outside.
Now, before I close this pitch to redefine the term “absolute zero” (and let the record reflect that I did check to make sure my fly was fully engaged before starting this argument), let me say this: I’m more than fortunate because I have a roof over my head and clothing that will protect me during the harsh winter months, even in temperatures that drop far below zero.
And when I complain about the weather, those are empty words, meant to grab a laugh or to make folks roll their eyes because maybe they’ve been thinking the same thing while standing on their front porch inappropriately dressed for the weather as they waited for their dog to pee, or as they sprinted to the mailbox and back to the house where it’s “absolutely” warm and comfortable.
But many aren’t so fortunate. They can’t just go inside or grab a hot cup of coffee or tea whenever they want. They’re just trying to survive, and weather (whether it’s heat, rain, snow or bitter cold) only adds to their struggle to make it through the day.
Too often, we (and when I say “we,” I really mean “I,” because I can’t – nor would I try to -- think for you, speak for you or tell you what to do) only see and feel the world through our own lens and skin. And when we do that, it’s easy to feel frustrated, beaten down, or in this case, cold.
But I’m lucky. I can joke about the weather, complain about it, and then, I can go (or stay) inside and watch it from the friendly confines of my home. What I need to do is spend more time contemplating what that really means, to be grateful for what I have, and then, to find a way to help those who truly, absolutely need help to get through days like this.
Stay warm, stay safe, be kind, and let’s all think about how we can help those who are less fortunate, regardless of the why or how.
And, to hell with absolute zero.
© 2021 David R. Haznaw