Living Columns & Blogs

Temperature extremes prove to be hot topic

The surface temperature of our sun is only 10,000 degrees.
The surface temperature of our sun is only 10,000 degrees.

Q: We were taught in school that absolute zero is the lowest possible temperature that can be achieved. Is there a highest possible temperature?

W.N.C., of Collinsville

A: Let me put it this way: If you’re one of those who believe that unrepentant sinners suffer eternal torment, you really should consider getting right with your maker today. Otherwise, if Satan can stoke the fires of Hades to even a tiny fraction of what some scientists speculate is absolute hot, you’re in for one helluva eternity. Yes, it’s that mind-boggling a number.

At least with absolute zero, you can sort of understand it even though you’ve never experienced anything nearly that cold. For those a little rusty on their science, the temperature of a substance is determined by how fast its molecules are moving. The faster they move, the more space they need and the higher the thermal energy (temperature). Conversely, as their velocity slows, they need less space and the temperature falls.

Theoretically, absolute zero is that point where substances produce zero thermal energy. Scientifically, it is noted as zero degrees on the scale Lord Kelvin devised in 1848. In more familiar terms, it’s minus 459.67 degrees on our common Fahrenheit scale. The lowest outdoor temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.6 in Antarctica on July 21, 1983, but at least you probably can grasp the idea of minus 459.

Trying to get a handle on absolute hot can fry your mind. Are you ready for this? Although a handful of numbers have been proposed, the most popular consensus on the highest possible temperature seems to be (drumroll, please) 255 nonillion degrees Fahrenheit. Not familiar with a nonillion? It’s 1 followed by 30 zeros. This probably won’t help, but (trusting my memories of algebra) it’s 255 million million million million million.

The surface temperature of our own sun is only 10,000 degrees, so where in the world did they ever come up with such a ludicrously large number? I’m glad you asked. It’s known as the Planck temperature after Max Planck, who won the 1918 Nobel Prize for his work developing quantum physics.

Without this becoming a doctoral thesis, let me put it in the simplest terms I can think of. At the teensy-tiniest fraction of a second after the Big Bang that brought the universe into existence, scientists speculate the temperature of the universe hit 255 nonillion degrees as it rapidly expanded and cooled. Not only that, but it was the only time the four major forces of the universe — gravity, electromagnetic, strong and weak — were united. Within another teensy-tiny fraction of a second, all of these forces split up, which is why scientists have toiled to devise a workable unified field theory ever since.

But here’s the real takeaway: Remember how I was talking about the velocity of molecules increasing as temperatures increased? Simply put, scientists apparently have no theory of how space, time and matter would behave at temperatures above 255 nonillion degrees. So although it’s never been remotely approached, many propose the Planck temperature as the upper limit.

For the record, though, at least two other numbers have been proposed, although they’re equally outlandish. One is about 2 nonillion degrees Fahrenheit and is known as the (Rolf) Hagedorn temperature — or the highest temperature predicted by string theory, an alternative to particle physics. A third, slightly more comprehensible candidate would be 180 quadrillion degrees — or 180 followed by only 15 zeroes. I’ll spare you the details but it has something to do with the 14 or so trillion electron volts generated by the Large Hadron Collider on the Swiss-French border.

In the final analysis, of course, nobody really knows the answer — if, indeed, there even is one. So if someone asks next summer whether it’s hot enough for you as he fries an egg on the sidewalk, just smile and say, “Yep, sure is.”

Q: In a recent News-Democrat story, your writer described a meeting as being “chalk full of whistle blowing and complaints.” I always thought the expression was “chuck full.” Which is correct and how did the expression start?

Dick Guetterman, of Mascoutah

A: Looks like we both have been forgetting to take our vitamins.

Is that a big enough clue for you? Well, it might be if you’re older than 50. Back in 1960, when I was watching “Sky King” and “The Lone Ranger” on my family’s 17-inch black-and-white TV, Miles Laboratory began scaring parents that their finicky kids might not be getting enough essential nutrients in their daily diet. Fortunately, the remedy was simple: the first chewable vitamin pill just for children. They called it Chocks because it was chock-full of the essential ingredients your little ones needed to stay healthy.

It was a brand name with 600 years of history behind it, even though its original pronunciation still is open to question. Here’s why: If you know your English literature, you probably remember “Morte Arthur,” an epic poem from about 1400 dealing with the legend of King Arthur. In that poem, you’ll find the line “charottez chokkefulle charegyde with golde” — chariots stuffed with gold, more or less.

But how do you say “chokkefulle”? Some still maintain that the correct pronunciation is “choke-full” — in other words, full to the point of choking as if you had filled your mouth with way too much peanut butter at one time. This makes some sense because “choke” may have been a Middle English word for “cheek.” Hence, you would have your cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk chewing on too many nuts.

But over the centuries, “chock full” seems to have won out, possibly because of the ancient spelling of “chokke,” which, by English rules, you would not pronounce “choke.” By the 1750s, readers were commonly finding such lines as “Stow thyself chocque-full of the best liquor in the land” and “with a head chock-full of impertinences.” Even Charles Dickens described a scene as “chock-full of trucks of coal.”

In your defense, “chuck full” began popping up 200 years ago, but even then wordsmiths called it “a corruption.” And the News-Democrat story? Well, maybe we should chalk that up to inexperience — and make our writer suffer through an hour of vintage Chocks commercials on YouTube.

Today’s trivia

By 1968, Miles Laboratory had replaced Chocks with the more kid-appealing Flintstones vitamins. There was Fred, Barney, etc., but what major Flintstones cartoon character didn’t get his/her/its own vitamin pill until 27 years after the product was introduced?

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer