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How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again


Title: Chilled – How Refrigeration Changed the World and Might Do So Again; Author: Tom Jackson; Publisher: Bloomsbury; Pages: 272; Price: Rs. 499

By Vikas Dutta

Can a basic scientific invention bring down the modern civilization? It is not a military attack, or more indirect means like blocking the internet and telephone lines (though that will leave many people wondering what to hold or what to do with their thumbs) or disrupting the financial system. It can be as simple as shutting down the refrigerators.

How the fridge, many will ask. What is unique in the device standing quietly in a corner of most homes, and does not seem much before more flashier appliances, including those in the kitchen itself, like microwaves, ovens, or kettles. But there is one crucial difference. All of them heat things but it cools (and preserves) them. So to use a contemporary idiom, it succeeds by being cool.

As author Tom Jackson says, the fridge is something of a “Boo Radley” character, a significant character from the late Harper Lee’s iconic “To Kill a Mockingbird”, as “it’s normally pale, frequently indoors, seldom though about much but always there, and in the end (spoiler alert) we need it to make everything all right”.

But how, you will ask again. As this book shows, this is because a fridge is only a visible embodiment of a crucial technology – which not only enables it, or freezers down at the supermarkets, or air conditioners, but makes it capable of being “a gas factory, a rocket engine, a server farm and even a fusion bomb” and be “used to dig holes, make dams, track subatomic particles, image the brain and feed half the world (without chilling food, either)”.

But this technology didn’t happen automatically or overnight – as we learn, it involves a long tale of the human endeavor to make sense of what heat and cold are, discover they are opposing phenomenon (it may now seem obvious but wasn’t far from easy) and enable techniques to employ them at will. Heat and light may have been under human control for now but the battle over cold is just a century old – which makes it “clearer why paleolithic man had little trouble torching a wooden stick, but had to wait several dozen millennia before he could put an ice-lolly on it”.

The complicated story is told here with compelling insight but simply and accessibly – and with characteristic British wit (as the above quote indicates) – by Jackson, a Bristol-based science writer who “specializes in recasting science and technology into lively historical narratives”.

This is above all not a history of the fridge – which doesn’t appear till chapter 8 of the book’s 12 chapters – and though the book begins with cooling technologies used in the ancient Middle East, Southeast and East Asia, it deals more with chemistry and thermodynamics, or understanding matter and energy, and entropy, or the constant universal struggle between order and chaos.

And Jackson ably brings out the intelligence and the perseverance that marked man’s attempts to understand his world and master its environment, despite the missteps, and involves a veritable galaxy of profound thinkers, alchemists and scientists – Plato and Aristotle, Paracelsus, Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle, Rene Descartes, Galileo, Blaise Pascal, Issac Newton, Joseph Priestley, Antoine Lavoiser, Gay-Lussac (of the gas laws), Michael Faraday, Fritz Haber and many others.

Even Albert Einstein makes an appearance, inventing a new (but complicated) type of refrigerator, along with Leo Szilard, otherwise known for playing a crucial role in figuring out the chain reaction of nuclear fission that made the atom bomb possible and Jackson dryly remarks that “never has a pair of novice refrigerator salesmen had such an impact”.

But the author doesn’t limit himself to famous scientists, also showcasing more obscure thinkers and inventors, businessmen like American “Ice King” Frederick Tudor, and historical characters like medieval French kings and popes that were involved with refrigeration. Even Swami Vivekananda turns out to have a connection.

Don’t get overawed by all the science promised, it is explained most lucidly, and leaves you impressed with the human intellect’s achievements. It might also make you treat fridges with more respect! (IANS)

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Book Review: Author Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy” deserves Plenty of Plaudits

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception

Tim Harford
Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy cover. Facebook
  • Author Tim Harford has written a new book titled ‘Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy
  • Tim Harford is also an economist and a columnist

New Delhi, August 22, 2017: The i-Phone may seem the pinnacle of human endeavour, ingenuity and technological prowess — but while Steve Jobs deserves the plaudits, the range of technologies making it possible were a collective effort, facilitated by a surprisingly unexpected benefactor. Such tales are discussed in Tim Harford’s “Fifty Things That Made The Modern Economy.”

When we think of the wonders of our modern world, we may cite these flashy hand-held devices that enable us to communicate, entertain ourselves and find information instantly. But they are merely one facet, for our lives now owe to a range of inventions and discoveries stretching from the humble plough to Google, and from the elevator to intellectual property, and achieved in several unusual and unexpected ways.

And while the i-Phone does make a list of 50 such inventions, so do concrete, clocks and infant formula as well as limited liability companies, public key cryptography and the welfare state — and many others, including some which may seem surprising.

But economist, columnist and author Tim Harford does not only seek here to list of 50 specific inventions but also to tell us the singular stories behind their inception — the iPhone especially — and how they affected us socially and economically from the beginning of civilisation to workings of the world economy now. Or rather in laying its foundations.

These 50 inventions, he says, range from those “absurdly simple” to ones which became “astonishingly sophisticated”, “stodgily solid” to “abstract inventions that you cannot touch at all”, profitable right from their launch or, while others were initially commercial disasters.

Also Read: Book Review: Hinduism in Ancient India and the Various Aspects of its Traditions by Greg Bailey

“But all of them have a story to tell that teaches us something about how our world works and that helps us notice some of the everyday miracles that surround us, often in the most ordinary-seeming objects. Some of these stories are of vast and impersonal economic forces; others are tales of human brilliance or human tragedy.”

Harford, known for his “Undercover Economist” series, does stress that he doesn’t seek to identify the 50 most economically significant inventions for some seemingly obvious entrants — printing presses, airplanes, computers — are missing. And there are good reasons why.

He also promises that while zooming in closely to examine one of these or pulling back to notice the unexpected connections, will provide answers to questions like the link between Elton John and the promise of a paperless office, how an American discovery banned in Japan for four decades affected women’s careers there, which monetary innovations destroyed Britain’s Houses of Parliament in the 1830s.

Harford also explains how all these inventions have two facets — they may not be always benign — in the longer run, or ensure a “win-win” scenario for all.

While it is easy to see inventions as solutions to problems, he warns against seeing them as only solutions, for they “shape our lives in unexpected ways — and while they’re solving a problem for someone, they’re often creating a problem for someone else”.

These attributes are best shown by the case of an ostensibly well-meaning American inventor who is responsible for poisoning our environment twice-over though his two contributions were initially helpful, and then by both the beneficial and baleful impacts of the plough — or banks for that matter.

Harford also shows that there is more to an invention than its inventing, and even for any one of them, “it’s often hard to pin down a single person who was responsible — and it’s even harder to find a ‘eureka’ moment when the idea all came together”.

Dealing with such aspects in the brief interludes between the inventions, placed in no discernible chronological or thematic order, Harford also seeks to put them together at the end to pose the vital question of how we should think about that often used and often misunderstood buzzword “innovation” today.

“What are the best ways to encourage new ideas? And how can we think clearly about what the effects of those ideas might be, and act with foresight to maximise the good effects and mitigate the bad ones?” he asks.

But as his incisive but illuminating and entertaining sojourn through centuries of human activities and endeavours show, there are no easy or definite answers. (IANS)