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NOVA: Absolute Zero

WGBH // Unrated // June 3, 2008
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted May 6, 2008 | E-mail the Author
The scientific quest to understand, utilize, and conquer cold itself is the subject of the two-part "Nova" special "Absolute Zero." The documentary, which premiered in January 2008 on PBS, quickly takes us through the history of the science of cold, ultimately focusing on the challenges of creating the lowest possible temperature: -270 degrees Celsius; 0 degrees Kelvin; absolute zero.

The first part, "The Conquest of Cold," offers a primer on science and temperature. It poses a simple question, one you may have never considered before: what is cold? Sure, we know what it is, in a sense, but on a scientific level, what is it? What causes it? Reenactments take us back to the 17th century, when scientists wondered if cold was an element - after all, if water expands when it turns to ice, perhaps "cold" gets in between the molecules, taking up extra room. Studies obviously proved otherwise, but that's an intriguing first step for scientists who were only beginning to ask questions. Meanwhile, alchemists wondered if it was possible to change the very air around them, performing parlor tricks that essentially created the world's first air conditioning.

The documentary goes through centuries of discoveries rather quickly (although never so quickly you'll miss anything), and its last half is spent not on science, but on lifestyle. Once the power of cold is harnessed, the industrial world changes rapidly, and the episode details how shipping, storage, home life, and even entertainment evolved under the benefit of new technologies.

This portion of the program tends to slow things down - we know most of it (people like air conditioning in the summer!), and it feels like filler, trying to cover all the bases before finally getting to the point of the series. It's interesting, of course, so we can't fault it too much.

Things get moving for the second episode, "The Race for Absolute Zero." In the previous episode, the documentary briefly touched on the theoretical discovery of the state (at which neither temperature nor pressure can go lower), but it's not until part two where the challenge for reaching such a temperature is studied. We follow the obsessions of several scientists beginning in the 19th century, each eager to break the degree barrier, hoping to be the first to liquefy oxygen, and hydrogen, and ultimately helium, the element with the lowest known melting and boiling points.

Such a race makes for surprisingly sharp drama, with several men devoting their entire professional lives to a single goal. The challenge winds up ruining one man and making others champions of the scientific community - a bit of human drama, driven by intense rivalry, that may continue in some form today, although the program doesn't present things that way. As the documentary fast-forwards to the 1990s and the eventual reaching of several seemingly unattainable goals (most notably the creation of a Bose-Einstein condensate, a state existing mere millionths of a degree above 0 Kelvin, in which quantum physics really goes nutty) paints today's scientists as a friendly bunch, proud of each others' accomplishments and Nobel Prizes. If there's any back-biting going on, nobody's talking.

Ah, but by this point in the story, there's no need for human drama - the scientific wonders presented here are drama enough. There's an ample discussion of quantum theory that's as astounding as it is baffling (even if the interviewees do their best to make it accessible to the layman). And as the show is a recent production, information is as up-to-date as possible, with revelations on the current state of research, including an experiment to slow light itself using a Bose-Einstein condensate. Which is pretty darn awesome.

The DVD

WGBH Video collects both 54-minute episodes onto a single disc release.

Video & Audio

The documentary uses a variety of source materials, resulting in an expected visual mixed bag. Most of the new footage (mainly interviews) comes across as sharp and clean, with spectacular computer animations aiding the dramatization of ideas; several reenactments, meanwhile, are given an intentionally underlit, grainy look, which comes across nicely. The overall effect is pretty much what you'd expect from a modern "Nova" episode. Presented in the original 1.78:1 widescreen (with anamorphic enhancement).

The soundtrack is a simple, clean Dolby stereo, nicely balancing the dialogue with the (soothing) musical score. A video descriptive track is provided for the visually impaired; no subtitles are offered, but the disc is closed captioned.

Extras

The disc includes a PDF file of a seven-page teacher's guide which includes such activities as building your own thermometer. There's also a reminder that there's a heap more over at the PBS website.

Final Thoughts

Armchair scientists will have a blast learning from "Absolute Zero," another quality entry from the "Nova" franchise. Recommended to those interested in scientific documentaries, and to science teachers looking for something new to share with the class.
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