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The lowest temperatures ever recorded have been measured during laboratory experiments: 4 . 5 × 10 10 K size 12{4 "." 5 times "10" rSup { size 8{–"10"} } " K"} {} at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA), and 1 . 0 × 10 10 K size 12{1 "." 0 times "10" rSup { size 8{–"10"} } " K"} {} at Helsinki University of Technology (Finland). In comparison, the coldest recorded place on Earth’s surface is Vostok, Antarctica at 183 K ( 89 º C ) size 12{ \( –"89"°C \) } {} , and the coldest place (outside the lab) known in the universe is the Boomerang Nebula, with a temperature of 1 K.

The figure is a single vertical axis showing a wide range of temperatures on a logarithmic scale, measured in kelvin. The temperature range goes from the lowest temperature achieved at ten to the power of negative ten kelvin up to the temperature in experiments at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at ten to the power of positive twelve kelvin.
Each increment on this logarithmic scale indicates an increase by a factor of ten, and thus illustrates the tremendous range of temperatures in nature. Note that zero on a logarithmic scale would occur off the bottom of the page at infinity.

Making connections: absolute zero

What is absolute zero? Absolute zero is the temperature at which all molecular motion has ceased. The concept of absolute zero arises from the behavior of gases. [link] shows how the pressure of gases at a constant volume decreases as temperature decreases. Various scientists have noted that the pressures of gases extrapolate to zero at the same temperature, 273 . 15 º C size 12{–"273" "." "15"°C} {} . This extrapolation implies that there is a lowest temperature. This temperature is called absolute zero . Today we know that most gases first liquefy and then freeze, and it is not actually possible to reach absolute zero. The numerical value of absolute zero temperature is 273 . 15 º C size 12{–"273" "." "15"°C} {} or 0 K.

Line graph of pressure versus temperature of five gases. Each graph is linear with a positive slope. Each line extrapolates to a pressure of zero at a temperature of negative two hundred seventy three point one five degrees Celsius.
Graph of pressure versus temperature for various gases kept at a constant volume. Note that all of the graphs extrapolate to zero pressure at the same temperature.

Thermal equilibrium and the zeroth law of thermodynamics

Thermometers actually take their own temperature, not the temperature of the object they are measuring. This raises the question of how we can be certain that a thermometer measures the temperature of the object with which it is in contact. It is based on the fact that any two systems placed in thermal contact (meaning heat transfer can occur between them) will reach the same temperature. That is, heat will flow from the hotter object to the cooler one until they have exactly the same temperature. The objects are then in thermal equilibrium    , and no further changes will occur. The systems interact and change because their temperatures differ, and the changes stop once their temperatures are the same. Thus, if enough time is allowed for this transfer of heat to run its course, the temperature a thermometer registers does represent the system with which it is in thermal equilibrium. Thermal equilibrium is established when two bodies are in contact with each other and can freely exchange energy.

Furthermore, experimentation has shown that if two systems, A and B, are in thermal equilibrium with each another, and B is in thermal equilibrium with a third system C, then A is also in thermal equilibrium with C. This conclusion may seem obvious, because all three have the same temperature, but it is basic to thermodynamics. It is called the zeroth law of thermodynamics    .

The zeroth law of thermodynamics

If two systems, A and B, are in thermal equilibrium with each other, and B is in thermal equilibrium with a third system, C, then A is also in thermal equilibrium with C.

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Practice Key Terms 9

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Source:  OpenStax, College physics. OpenStax CNX. Jul 27, 2015 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11406/1.9
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