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Interstice: Heat and Cold Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy? —John Keats, “Lamia” That the glass would melt in heat, / That the water would freeze in cold, / Shows that this object is merely a state, / One of many, between two poles. —Wallace Stevens, “The Glass of Water” Hand a stranger a glass of cold water and when someone asks her a few minutes later what she thought of you, she will likely associate subconsciously the coldness with your personality. Touch an individual warmly on the shoulder, and he will probably transfer this warmth to your person and think of you in a more positive light. The poles of hot and cold along with the many gradations in-between—from tepid and temperate to cool and chilly—establish regulative limits for our corporeal experiences, and they impact profoundly all living beings on the planet as well as the particular physical states and composition of earth, water, and air. More often than we realize, heat and cold affect our choices regarding shelter, diet, and clothing; they alter our moods and outlooks on the world; and they influence an extensive gamut of practical decisions from vacation plans to battle strategies. Hot and cold, of course, often involve relative assessments and qualitative judgments about the environment. That is, with the exception of clearly identifiable freezing and boiling points for chemical substances and solutions, they are frequently perceived as subjective states. Cold soup, bathwater, or wind for some of us might be felt as lukewarm, or at least tolerable, to others. Cold objects, too, tend to feel heavier to us than hot ones even when they are of the same weight. Still, we are “warm-blooded” animals—more exactly, homeotherms because we keep our temperatures stable through metabolic adjustments—and so tend to connect heat with affirmative feelings as when we are drawn to “warm-hearted” individuals with “constant” character traits. To most people, cold-blooded connotes insensitivity or unconcern, even cut-throatedness. Like other creatures, then, we 201 202 | Elemental Philosophy possess prejudices of the body, biological dispositions, or orientations that congeal or quicken over time into temperaments such as “cool” or “hot-headed” demeanors —internal qualities that are exhibited outwardly and that are akin to external temperature variations. Warm-blooded beings are able to survive precipitous drops in outside temperature for short periods, but because their resilience is usually purchased at the cost of burning body fat or by shivering, intense expenditures of energy may be required. As a consequence, some animals like birds may lose up to a third of their weight over the course of a night, and others might need up to ten times as much food as “cold-blooded” organisms, who are better able to withstand famine or to endure sparse surroundings. Cold-blooded creatures—more accurately, exotherms—maintain their body temperatures and heat (therm) from the outside (exo), deriving warmth from the sun, moving air, or flowing water. Termites, for example, position their mounds on a north–south axis so as to capitalize on heat absorption during the early and late hours of the day and to minimize it around noontime, keeping their homes close to a comfortable 86°F. Some animals have internal temperatures that are actually in sync with their immediate environs. Accordingly, lizards and snakes sun themselves on stones; desert dwellers burrow deeply underground during the unbearable heat of the afternoon; and fish ascend or descend in water to find appropriate temperature zones. Heat and cold are thus elemental because they greatly condition the environmental “plasma” in which we dwell and through which we evolve and move: the media of air, water, and land that constitute an ambient setting or stage for ecological change, geological processes, and cultural life. “Sultriness or aridity extends space about us,” notes Alphonso Lingis. “The cold is an unbounded zone open about our mobile body; the torrid expanse spreads amorphous directions for languid movement.”1 Such influence originates with the oldest and most complex story of them all: the beginning of the universe in that tremendous burst or “bang” of immense temperature and dense energy, the great “fireball” of heat and light that expanded into observed space-time. Recently, in fact, physicists have discovered a cosmological “cold spot” in the universe’s radiation—the heat glow that remains after the cosmos was born—that may be a relic or glitch of that first magnificent moment some fourteen billion years ago. Since the time of...


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