Book Review: Einstein's Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe


Einstein's Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe by Paul Sen

Albert Einstein actually did design a refrigerator. Einstein, along with former student Leo Szilard, wanted to design something that was safer than the fridges available at the time. Refrigerator pumps in the 1920s used toxic chemicals as their cooling agents, and there had been a number of cases where leaks had spewed toxic fumes into the homes of unsuspecting refrigerator owners. One family in Berlin, with several children, died in such an incident, which Sen says was the direct inspiration for Einstein and Szilard’s work. 

This is just one of the stories Paul Sen uncovers in his book Einstein’s Fridge. It’s a history of the advancement of the science of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is that branch of physics involving the relationships between heat, temperature, work and energy, and the related physical properties of matter and radiation (a nod of thanks to Wikipedia).

I am pretty much a sucker for any book in the general category of the history of science or technology. If I encounter one in a bookstore I have a hard time not walking out the door with it in my shopping bag. But all these books are not created equal. For me, the best of these books have a mix that is heavier on the history, with enough of the science for the layman to understand and not become overwhelmed. Sen gets that mix just right in this book, creating what I think is an instant classic.

 Sen takes us from Sadi Carnot, James  Watt, and James Joule working in the days of steam engines, all the way up to Stephen Hawking and the influence of thermodynamics on his understanding of black holes and their event horizons - with plenty of stories in between.

Through those stories  we follow the growth in the understanding of thermodynamics, and the wide range of impact that understanding has had. The advances in thermodynamics have influenced fields as disparate as quantum theory, information theory, relativity and genetics. 

Einstein published several papers advancing theories in thermodynamics in 1903 and 1904, leading up to the publication of his special theory of relativity in 1905.  In 1951 Alan Turing, starting from the laws of thermodynamics, advanced a theory to explain the genetics behind patterns in living things. His theory of morphogenesis attempts to explain how genes can induce organization among cells. It helps answer the question of why the cells of an embryo self organize to form patterns - a heart, two hands, and a head appear where there were only cells before. Discoveries at the cellular level in the twenty first century tend to show Turing’s theory is correct. 

The book is sprinkled with diagrams that help to explain some of Sen’s deeper dives into science. But he manages to keep the scientific explanations mostly in layman’s terms throughout the body of the book, and provides a few appendices for those tempted to dive further.

Paul Sen has a long history of storytelling around science and technology in the world of filmmaking. His Furnace TV production studio has created a number of documentaries about scientists, engineers, and technologists which have been aired in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. This is his first book, and he’s knocked it out of the park.

RATING: Five Stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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Title: Einstein's Fridge: How the Difference Between Hot and Cold Explains the Universe

Author: Paul Sen

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Publish Date: April 5, 2022

ISBN-13: 9781501181313

Publisher’s List Price: $18.99 Trade Paperback (as of 08/2022)