By Pam Knox
University of Georgia
“Heat: Adventures in the World’s Fiery Places” by Bill Streever is a wide-ranging exploration of heat and its effects on a broad span of human and natural phenomena. It follows his national bestseller “Cold,” which covered the opposite end of the thermal spectrum. I have not read “Cold,” but by all accounts both books follow a similar trajectory.
“Heat” is organized into eight chapters which cover a variety of topics. The chapters are organized roughly around the concepts of hyperthermia, wildfire, fire-making, coal, oil, lava, nuclear explosions, and high-energy physics. However, each chapter is written as a random walk, bouncing from one thought to another in a non-linear path, which covers a great range of information within the topic of the chapter. Woven into the book is the author’s quest to perform a fire walk; the story of his attempts to arrange this appear in each chapter of the book, culminating in an actual fire walk in the final chapter.
As a climatologist, my favorite chapter was the first, which discusses the effects of heat on humans and animals in the context of a walk in Death Valley. During the course of this chapter, the author includes discussions of the wet bulb globe temperature; the mining of borax; the caloric theory of heat; Pablo Valencia, who survived a week in Death Valley; desert plants; the geology of Death Valley; the evolution of warm-blooded animals; the Nevada Test Site and the effects of heat on Hiroshima victims; the physiology of fever; and Kuda Box and the history of firewalking. This is not even a complete list of the topics in this chapter, but it provides a glimpse into the wide-ranging style that is the hallmark of this book. By the end of this chapter, I discovered a new appreciation for the impacts of heat on human physiology and an understanding of why this topic is so fascinating to the author.
I particularly appreciated the historical insights into the discovery of the greenhouse effect scattered throughout this book. They include the initial discussion of the greenhouse effect by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s and the description of John Tyndall’s experiments in the 1850s, which led him to discover the radiative properties of various gases. This allowed Tyndall to determine which ones were most effective at absorbing infrared radiation. This information was new to me and presented in an interesting and accessible way without going into unnecessary physical detail.
As a generalist in science, I appreciated Streever’s broad range of information on heat in all its manifestations as well as his pleasant conversational descriptions of each topic. The variety of facts he presents in his breezy narrative style is truly amazing. I particularly appreciated the discussions of the impacts of heat on humans and animals and his descriptions of Death Valley climate in the first chapter and his descriptions of cooking techniques in Chapter 3. In the process of discussing heat, the author also touches on some modern and controversial topics, including energy policy and greenhouse warming. Streever successfully links the discussions of these topics into his chapter themes and provides some insight into how heat affects and is impacted by these important phenomena.
Scientifically, Streever has organized many interesting facts about heat — how it is created and how it affects the world. The facts are well documented in an extended section of notes at the end of the book, which not only provide references for the quoted facts but also extend the information for those who are interested in learning more. The topics covered by Streever were well-researched and I learned a number of new things about heat impacts in the book. I did not note any scientific or editing errors.
If you are looking for an entertaining book that provides a smorgasbord of information on an interesting and accessible topic, “Heat” may be the book for you. Because of the jump from topic to topic, it is an easy book to set down and pick up, making it ideal for air travel or commuting. However, because it does not have an overriding theme or plot, a week later I remembered little of the content I’d read the week before. I will pick up “Cold” the next time I am looking for some light but tasty scientific reading on a trip, and am looking forward, hopefully, to similar books on “Wet” and “Dry” from this author in the future.
See BillStreever.com for more on the author.
Pam Knox is an agricultural climatologist at the University of Georgia in Athens in their College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. She is a former president of the American Association of State Climatologists and is a Certified Consulting Meteorologist as well as a board member of the Continuing Professional Development Board of the American Meteorological Society.
By Pam Knox