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Saturday, 29 March 2014

Cool science

"Have you noticed how women always comment on the temperature when they enter a room?" I ask Rachel, as we're sat in the physics library at Glasgow University, trying to make progress on our educational project, while ventilator fans in the wall blast out cool air. 

"No," she says.

"That's because unlike me you are not a trained observer," I tell her.

"You've got your jumper on inside out and are wearing odd socks," she says. "I have a PhD in nuclear physics. Which makes me the trained observer, I believe. We don't just make stuff up."

"Quarks, gluons, colour, strangeness and charm?" I say. "Course you make it up and I'll tell you how I know. You can't buy any of that stuff on eBay. So it doesn't exist."

"For once there's a tiny particle of sense in your wittering," she says.

"There is?" I say.

"You're like a machine-gunner on a firing-range having an epileptic fit while standing on a turntable," she says. "One bullet in a million hits the target. Women do feel temperature differently."

"Is that because they're robots planted on Earth by aliens running experiments on pain and suffering?" I say.

"No it's because they have extra insulation," she says. "So their core temperature stays high at the expense of their extremities. They are also smaller on average so they lose heat faster. Pygmy shrews have the same problem."

"But don't complain about it nearly as much."

"They have to eat every four hours or die of cold," she says. "Elephants have the opposite problem. They struggle to keep cool. It's why they have big ears."

"I thought that was because Noddy wouldn't pay the ransom," I say, and she ignores me again. 

"Small objects have more surface area for their size than large ones," she says. "It's why you shouldn't eat the tasty little chips at the bottom of the bag. More surface means more grease for the same potato." 

"I heard frogs freeze solid in winter," I say, keen to keep her distracted from my progress on the forty actions she gave me last week, only three of which I've done. "Is that true?"

"The North American wood frog does," she says. "Completely solid. Then when the thaw comes, its little heart starts beating again and it gives itself a shake."

"And wanders off to look for female frogs," I say. "Who go 'It's bloody cold around here. Why can't you do something about it - call yourself a frog?'"

"I have no knowledge of the conversational habits of amphibians," she says, turning to look through the tall bay window behind us. 

"See that building up the grassy slope?" she says. "A man called William Thompson laid the foundations of the science of heat and energy when he lived there. He was the first scientist to be given a peerage for his work - Lord Kelvin."

"I remember studying heat and energy when I was young," I tell her. "We had a Three Laws of Thermodynamics for dummies that went like this:

1. You can't win. You can only break even.
2. You can break even only at absolute zero.
3. You can't reach absolute zero."

She nods. "Basically you can never make a perpetual motion machine," she says. "But things work better the colder they get."

"Except women," I say.

"Except women," she says, standing up and reaching for her jacket. "It's bloody freezing in here. Let's go get a coffee."

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