Cooling is as important to civilisation as making fire — only much harder

Chilled, Tom Jackson’s enthralling history of how refrigeration changed the world, takes us from Mesopotamian ice-houses to the Large Hadron Collider

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

Chilled: How Refrigeration Changed the World, and Might Do So Again Tom Jackson

Bloomsbury, pp.223, £16.99, ISBN: 9781472911438

Summertime, and the living is… variable. Depends who you ask. People come to mind, of course: one in hospital, waiting for an MRI scan; another just come out of hospital having had two little frosted ova thawed out and implanted, so with a bit of luck she’ll have a baby at last.

One old chap, 90-ish, with several basal cell carcinomas on his pate from his young days as an army officer in the Palestine sun, is going for a painless zap with a cryoprobe: lesions gone and a free pathology section into the bargain. And over at Cern the Large Hadron Collider has sent a new pentaquark lately to the firmament.

The mind, generally, lags. It needs a book to provoke it into fresh life, into noticing old things anew. Tom Jackson’s Chilled will do very well indeed, especially on a hot day of lassitude and indolence. A day like this one, almost dead of its own heat. ‘Fair summer droops’, as Thomas Nashe says. A day which once called for a heat-flushed girl, hair damp against her nape, now requires an iced mojito, droplets licking slowly down the glass, while the sea bass bakes. Then chilled Prosecco for sprezzatura, Orfeo on Spotify, and a bottle of artisanal Sacred Gin on ice should the vicar drop in. The salad’s in the crisper… but, damn, the shopping list proclaims from its fridge magnet: salad dressing. So it’s out in this delirious heat, but at least the car has aircon.

And all of this depends on one thing: cold. More precisely, it depends on chilling: things being colder than they would be naturally.

The infant(s)-to-be depend for their frozen suspended animation upon liquid nitrogen, at -192°C. The MRI scanners depend, like the LHC, on magnets supercooled in liquid helium at -269°C. That’s awfully close to absolute zero, at which everything stops: -273.15°C. It’s rock bottom for thermodynamics and, practically, it can’t be reached. But we can get close to it, the apotheosis of cold.

Cold (but not that cold) ices the mojito. Cold kept the fish fresh between sea and oven. Cold chilled the prosecco, and not only chilled the Sacred Gin but gave birth to it: it’s distilled, not with heat, but with cold. Cold crisps the lettuce, cold is what the aircon manufactures, and if it weren’t for manufactured cold, there wouldn’t be a fridge door, and where would you put the fridge magnets then?

And the streaming music? The cool cleanliness of the internet is a delusion. We fool ourselves that, being intangible, it’s somehow unreal: that the information economy is infinitely better for the planet than filthy old industrial smokestacks. But a friend, scouting for new high-tech offices, immediately hired a helicopter to fly over the city, looking for roof-space for the huge aircon fans they would need. Those servers get hot and must be cooled. And the miracle is: they can be.

It was not always so. Heat was the bogeyman: enemy and friend. It kept us warm but it rotted stuff. The cold dead got hot again as they deliquesced: all those bacteria and larvae, digesting for dear dead life. Heat destroyed buildings but saved lives. But most of all, heat was relatively easy. It was already there, in everything: molecular bonds holding firm with the energy got, without exception, from nuclear fusion of helium, in the sun. Add oxygen, fracture the bonds, and we could warm ourselves, or cook our food. Metal smelts, pottery fires, Krook in Bleak House bursts into flames; it’s as if we were detaching and carrying about tiny moieties of the sun. We were born of fire, even if we will ultimately perish of ice.

For most of our history, we’ve been able to do things about cold. For much of our prehistory, it wasn’t an issue. In our species’ African homelands, most of the time we were fine as we were, in our skin. Occasionally we might need something else’s skin as well. Usually a fire would do the trick. If it got far too hot, though, we were stuffed; our best bet was to find a cave.

Cooler was a harder task, and this is the story which Chilled tells so enthrallingly: of how we learned to make our own cold. Tom Jackson opens his book of chilly mirabilia with a hymn to the refrigerator, a sort of simple but revolutionary heat-pump we no longer even notice. It’s just there, pumping out heat. (Not pumping in cold. That can’t really be done. Laws of thermodynamics are the most important scientific laws that most people haven’t heard about. And don’t get me started on entropy or we’ll be here forever and descend into chaos.)

It’s a fascinating journey and Jackson conducts it in the manner of a wizard. From heat-pumps we whisk in a flash to 18th-century BC Terqa, on the west bank of the Euphrates, where the new king Zimri-lim sets about building an ice-house. We race, shivering and sweltering by turns, around the ancient world, to fifth-century BC Persia, to Egypt, from stone jars in water-pits to ceramic pots standing in kraters of snow (and, incidentally, giving sense to the naming of sorbet). Cold — colder than it should be — is always, in this narrative, as magical as Kubla Khan’s ‘sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice’. And domes over ice caves are a persistent metaphor, and reality, in Chilled.

The hunt for cold is, then, at least 4,000 years old. The Romans, always obsessed with water, were fascinated too by ice; the decocta Neronis drunk by the rather camp young emperor was nothing more nor less than melted ice, probably a sort of Slush Puppie. The Greek Pytheas claimed to have found Britain on his way to Ultima Thule (probably Trondheim) from where he brought ice to Naples, but ‘Indian wizards had done it at least 1,000 years before’. Read on.

Our modern world is built on cold. Our northern European culture, though technically temperate, is naturally founded on it, and in opposition to it, too. In summer, heat meant privacy; in winter, communality. Love blossomed in spring because lovers could be alone and warm. By the height of summer, drooping with the distant autumn, George Peele’s young man was yearning: ‘Then O, then O, then O my true love said/ Till that time come again/ She could not live a maid’, but the delicious sigh of erotic promise came with a best-before date: come foggy autumn, come cold winter, she would have to live a maid, because to be warm meant to be in company around the single open fire. It’s really an invitation to private consummation now, now, in a hayrick or a hedgerow.

Off we may spin, from the hayrick to the dance (the language of the fan: the tap, the flutter, the gaze, unnecessary in an air-conditioned ballroom) to the bedroom (ice, the voluptuary’s delight) to the cold, cold plunge-pool in temperate-zone health clubs.

Chilled is a fascinating technological, historical and social narrative which reminds us what we should be noticing and how it got there, and encourages us in our own flights of fanciful interconnection. Never mind your belly; this will stop your mind sagging on the beach. Not sure? Listen: Sir Francis Bacon was the first man (of many) to be killed by a frozen chicken, in 1621. There. Buy it. It’s a chill-cabinet of curiosities: hot stuff, and deeply cool.

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Show comments
  • Callipygian

    ‘Aircon’: what is this? I live in the deep South, and we just call it air conditioning.

  • ItsAlreadyTooLate

    Can you imagine it, Pytheas telling his wife ” just popping out for some ice and discover Britain”

  • ViolinSonaten b minor.

    ‘ A day like this one almost dead in its own heat’ where the devil are you ?
    not on this continent . Mind you the girl with the iced mojito, an excellent idea.

  • post_x_it

    Is this a book review?