Day 451: Fahrenheit & His Super-Friends

originally published March 26, 2013

Having grown up being fed the beige paste of the metric system in school, I was always intrigued by the exotic, flamboyant, and outright chaotic nature of the imperial measurement system. Twelve inches in a foot, three feet in a yard, some seemingly arbitrary number of feet in a mile… its mystery was seductive. The metric system, with all its blasé order and logic, did not feed my affection for obfuscation.

And the temperatures were my favorite. An eighty-degree day sounded like an achievement. “A hundred-and-five in the shade” paints a sultry landscape in sweaty, swooshy oils, with palm trees and patios, cervezas and ceiling fans, a palpable tropical mind-set that “40.5556 degrees Celsius” just doesn’t capture. Celsius is rigid, logical, methodical, and boring, like a hotel-room watercolor print of a grain elevator.

Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit was like the Batman of temperature scientists. When he was fifteen years old, both his parents were brutally murdered. The culprit was Mother Nature, and her weapon of choice was poisonous mushrooms. And just like Batman, Fahrenheit dedicated his life toward thwarting the very evil that struck his parents down: the natural sciences. When he developed his own system of measurement at age 38, he could claim victory over the evil poisonous mushrooms, or at least over figuring out how warm or cold they were.

Fahrenheit set the zero in his scale at the freezing point of brine. Maybe brine was more common than water back in 1724, I don’t know – it seems like an odd choice to me. The boiling point of water is 212 degrees, or exactly 180 degrees higher than the freezing point. Fahrenheit set it like this so he could bisect his thermometers easily, not because it made any sort of mathematical sense. He was the Batman of his field though – nobody questioned his methods, even if it put his original estimate of the human body’s temperature (96 degrees) a little bit off.

Ole Rømer would be the Ra’s Al Ghul of the group. He developed his own temperature scale in 1701, then met with Fahrenheit in 1708 to discuss it with him, to impart his wisdom in the same way Ra’s Al Ghul taught Bruce Wayne how to be a bad-ass crime-fighter. Fahrenheit took that wisdom and altered it, multiplying Rømer’s benchmarks (7.5 degrees for the freezing of water, 22.5 degrees for body temperature) by four. Then, because that still presented some inaccuracy (much like Ra’s Al Ghul presented some obvious signs of being evil), Fahrenheit fixed it.

Nobody uses Rømer’s scale anymore, and with such a ridiculous conversion formula (take the number of degrees Celsius, multiply by 21/40 then add 7.5), it’s not likely this system will appear as anything but a footnote in temperature-measuring history.

Lord Kelvin (also known by his mild-mannered alter-ego, Glasgow University engineer and physicist William Thomson) is the Superman of the gang. He didn’t come first, but he is the standard by which other superheroes (or in this case, temperature scales) are measured. Where Superman has Truth, Justice and the American Way, Kelvin has Absolute Zero, the coldest possible temperature. Kelvin wasn’t worried about freezing brine or boiling water – he stationed the base of his scale at the lowest possible point, which he calculated to be -273 degrees Celsius, and let it climb from there. This makes the conversion from Celsius remarkably easy, as you merely have to subtract 273 from your Celsius reading to figure out the degrees in kelvin. Well, 273.16. Tweaking for accuracy always takes the simple out of science.

After the 13th General Conference on Weights and Measures in 1968, the term ‘degree’ was taken away from the kelvin and the capital first letter was set as lowercase, in order to differentiate the scale from the arbitrariness of Celsius and Fahrenheit. Kelvin is based on an absolute, so it gets special treatment. Sort of like how Superman gets the comfiest chair in the Hall of Justice.

The Rankine scale is the poor man’s kelvin, just like how Captain Marvel is the poor man’s Superman. William John Macquorn Rankine also worked at Glasgow University along with William “the kelvinator” Thomson, and came up with his own system for temperature measurement in 1859, eleven years after kelvin had hit the streets. His scale also starts at absolute zero. But instead of moving up from there by degrees Celsius, his moves up by degrees Fahrenheit, so that the simpler calculation comes from Fahrenheit. Well, relatively simpler – subtract 459.67 from your Fahrenheit temperature to figure out how many degrees Rankine you’ve got.

In 1952, DC comics sued Fawcett Comics because Captain Marvel was a clear rip-off of Superman. Eventually they acquired the rights and began publishing Captain Marvel comics themselves. Similarly, those who continue to use Fahrenheit regularly (other than America, that list includes Belize, the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, and Palau) will also refer to degrees Rankine when they need to speak in terms of absolute zero. Which probably doesn’t happen often.

René Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur is the Aquaman of this collective. His temperature scale sets the freezing point of water at zero degrees and the boiling point at 80. Much like Aquaman’s power to communicate with sea creatures, the Réaumur scale is mildly interesting but not particularly useful. The only time it pops up in modern usage is in some Italian dairies to measure the milk temperature in cheese production. Whoopie. Thanks for pitching in, René.

I’m going to jump ships from DC to Marvel here, and declare Anders Celsius to be the Captain America of the temperature scale team. Honestly, I think this metaphor ran off the rails after the whole Fahrenheit-Batman thing, but it’s too late to back out now.

Anders set his scale by strict logic, much like how Captain America refers to an absolute moral code to guide his actions (I think – I wasn’t really a fan). Zero degrees is where water freezes, a hundred degrees is where it boils. Room temperature? A nice, round twenty.

Actually, Anders’ first scale, and the one he used as a standard until Carl Linnaeus fixed it in 1743, the year Anders died, had zero as the boiling point of water and 100 as its freezing point. So maybe Anders Celsius was some sort of Bizarro-world Captain America? Did that ever happen?

I think the lesson here is that some metaphors are best left untouched. Also, in a rational world we would only need two of these heroes: Celsius and kelvin. But this world isn’t rational, and I eagerly await the first 80-degree day of the year.

And that’s what I’ll damn well call it.

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