Toward the end of Heat, Bill Streever’s thoroughly entertaining companion volume to his previous book, Cold, he quotes Harry Houdini: “It is possible to dip the hand for a short time into melted lead, or even into melted copper, the moisture of the skin supplying vapor which prevents direct contact with molten lead.” Streever writes, “I have no interest in proving him right and even less interest in proving him wrong,” which actually comes as a bit of a surprise. From what we’ve seen of the author up to that point, he’s nothing if not “hands on.”
In the first chapter we meet him in his home in Anchorage, Alaska, where, in his attempts to “begin to understand heat,” he places his hand in a 1,360-degree candle flame, and keeps it there for five seconds. His personal “pain scale” shoots up — on a scale of 0 to 10 — to 11, and he observes, “I hold a world of pain in the palm of my hand.” This comes as rather more of a revelation to him than it does to the reader.
Soon we see him in Death Valley, taking a “stroll” in the desert. The temperature hits 112 in the shade, the water he carries with him becomes as “warm as tea,” he feels ill, and his companion gets heat rash. Later, back home, inspired by the work of molecular gastronome Herv This, a man who can tell the difference between an egg at 147 degrees and one at 149 degrees, Streever pops an egg in its shell into a microwave oven. The egg explodes after 43 seconds, and Streever sardonically remarks that he thinks it’s a 158-degree egg “with hints” of 153.
But just when you think the author is playing up his own haplessness, he’ll set off on some genuinely intrepid adventure, such as walking a 70-mile round trip to the site of Project Chariot, where in the early 1960s, the American government planned to explode a nuclear bomb to create an artificial harbor, part of Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative. The temperatures, Streever tells us, would have reached 20 million degrees.
The book does have an enjoyable “amazing facts” element to it. Who knew that as early as the mid-18th century, Benjamin Franklin was concerned with fuel shortages, and was fretting about a time in the future when every servant would want a fireplace? Who has heard of Charles Horton, “one of the big names in the firewalking movement,” who walked barefoot across fresh lava? Who knew that in World War I and World War II and in Korea, captured soldiers identified as operators of flamethrowers were singled out for summary, on-the-spot execution? Even the best-informed reader is surely going to find something new and surprising here, as Streever casts his net wide, historically and geographically, covering topics as diverse as arson, the use of fire in warfare, steam engines, volcanoes, coal vs. peat, the history of oil usage and spontaneous combustion, among many other topics.
Streever operates in some of the same territory as Mary Roach and Bill Bryson: taking on big, serious topics, and making them entertaining without making them trivial, inserting himself into the narrative without overwhelming the material. This is a fine balancing act. If there are moments when the book reads a little as if it might be a pitch for a reality TV show, well, it’s one that I’d definitely want to see.
Geoff Nicholson reviewed this book for The San Francisco Chronicle.