How Cold is Cold: What is Temperature?

How Cold is Cold: What is Temperature?


Rick McMaster
STEM Advocate
University Programs Worldwide
Austin, TX

Lesson Feedback


This video lesson is part of a two-part series and introduces the concept of temperature. Temperature can be a challenging concept to convey since our perception is tied to words that are relative to our own experience, which varies quite a lot. A short activity to be performed in the classroom shows the need for a temperature scale since qualitative descriptions are not adequate. Temperatures that vary from the hottest to coldest recorded temperatures on earth are shown in advance of introducing the boiling temperatures of a number of cryogenic liquids. Required materials include three medium-sized containers, approximately one liter each, one containing hot water (<50C/120F), one ice water and one with water at an intermediate temperature. If dry ice is available locally, the demos from the video can be repeated in the classroom with the proper cautions. This overall lesson should take 30 to 45 minutes to complete. The final question is how to tell from visual observation alone which cup contains hot water and which contains liquid nitrogen. The second BLOSSOMS video in this two-part series, “How Cold Is Cold: Properties of Materials”, picks up at this point. While there are no prerequisites for this lesson, it should be viewed in advance of the second lesson of the series.

Instructor Biography

Rick McMaster received his Ph.D. in low temperature physics from the University of Connecticut and is a licensed professional engineer in Electrical and Computer Engineering. Rick has had a range of assignments in his career at IBM, including process development, processor and subsystem design, marketing and business process development. Currently he is the STEM Advocate in IBM's University Programs Worldwide. He chairs the Central Texas Discover Engineering outreach to schools and is on the advisory board of WGBH's Design Squad Nation and WNET's Cyberchase.

For Teachers

Additional Online Resources

This page, from The Provincial Scientist website, provides an excellent and easily understood overview of cold, heat and temperature.

Sponsored by the Jefferson Lab - a world-leading nuclear physics research facility funded by the U.S Dept. of Energy - this Frostbite Theater site provides a large number of videos showing liquid nitrogen experiments.

This resource is provided by Zona Land Education in Physics and Mathematics and presents a comprehensive discussion of heat, cold and temperature along with animations of these phenomena.
Click here

This page, presented by the Physics in Plain English website, presents the topic of cold, heat and temperature from the physics perspective of energy.

This site, sponsored by the Atomic Lab of the University of Colorado, also includes a discussion of Bose Einstein Condensation.