Absolute zero

THE book says absolute zero is the lowest temperature theoretically possible -- the absence of heat -- and then describes some of the efforts by certain scientists to attain it. Pshaw. The book says nobody has ever been that cold. Ha, and ha! Allow me to differ.

Here in Maine there has always been an oddity about closing a summer camp deep in the woods for the winter. Usually any kind of a tight camp will be kept available through our gunning (Mainers gun rather than hunt) season, so there is often some snappy weather and snow before the day comes to leave everything until spring. The dishes will be cleaned and stacked in the cupboard, the kerosene lamps trimmed and filled and arranged on the shelf, the woodbox left full with adequate kindlings ready, and the bedding stored with the mattresses up on wires to frustrate mice and squirrels. Then a good sweeping out. Last thing, presumably, would be to lock the door before retreating to civilization until the ice is out and the fishing season opens in May.

Not so. The door will, instead, be tied open with a piece of rope around the porch railing, and then propped with a stout stick. Bears. If you lock a camp door, the first bear that comes along will rip it off its hinges to find out if Goldilocks has left him three bowls of porridge. It is no fun whatever to return in May and find your camp a tattered shambles where Ol' Bruin rampaged his disappointment at the lack of porridge. So, you leave your door propped and tied open, and if a bear comes by he wanders in, looks things over, decides he's not mad at anybody, and he wanders out again.

By the way, the custom of leaving the camp open because of bears is carried over into a new day because of snowmobilers. The snowmobilers like to assert that ``not all of us'' are thus and so, but this is small comfort to the camp owner who finds his locked camp was stormed by passing snowmobilers and used all winter as a base for ice fishing. Much of our Maine wilderness is off limits for snowmobiles because ``not all of us'' precludes ``some of us.'' Pity. Anyway, the oddity of ``closing'' for the season is leaving the door wide open.

And it happens that somebody who has such a camp will decide to visit it when there is snow over the porch roof and the lake ice is booming as it thickens in the zeal of the ``Montreal Express.'' It's a kind of a good time. The camp is there -- it won't take long to make it comfortable. All you need do is arrive. Last time I was involved in this, my goodwife packed supplies and we went. The plan was for me to go ahead on snowshoes, pulling our goodies on the moose-sled andleaving a track she could follow an hour or so later -- giving me time to get the camp warm. That's how things went, and we had a wonderful weekend there by our lonesomes, sitting by the hot stove waiting for the next meal, permitting solitude to dissipate our carks and cares. The first evening we had steaks, assisted by a shortcake made from preserved wild strawberries, and then we improved as we went along. We settled the world's champ cribbage title seven times. Finest kind.

But I purposed to explain how a Maine woods camp with the door tied open accumulates, as winter wears along, the exact coolth of -273.15 C., which the laboratory folks agree is the ultimate absence of heat. They are honorable people and they work hard, but they are looking in the wrong place. That day, to counteract absolute zero, I lit a fire in the stove, which at once burned off the oil we had applied to deter rust. Anticipating this, I had left the door tied to the railing, so the stench was aired out in about an hour. Thus absolute zero was lifted to geniality without warming the camp, and the only proof of comfort was the way the stove hopped up and down. When I did untie and close the door, things leaped to the equal of a raging inferno within seconds. When goodwife arrived, it was possible just barely to breathe, so I opened the door again about an inch to cool things down to 150 F.

That's how it is, and if these scientific people really want to find absolute zero, there's no need to fool around in the laboratories.

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