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May 6

100 Wonders: The Coldest Town on Earth

Coldness is an odd concept.

Close to its lowest point, hovering just a smidge over absolute zero, matter becomes another form altogether. It’s not a gas, liquid, or solid, but instead something called Bose-Einstein condensate, a super conductive, super fluid material whereby the atoms blob together and begin to act like one big quantum object. In this state, actions normally only visible on a quantum scale can be seen at a macro scale.  

This level of cold is unusual, and most of the universe is much much warmer. In fact, even the coldest places in space never get colder than 2.7 Kelvin or -270.45 Celsius, heated by cosmic background radiation. Earth, meanwhile, keeps a comfortable and life-friendly temperature that, on average, is 61 degrees Fahrenheit. A lovely fall day.

However, even within the relatively limited range of natural temperatures on earth, cold plays odd tricks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the world’s coldest inhabited town, Oymyakon, in Siberia. Cars, electronics, and materials like metals and plastics, all begin to fail. For its 500 residents, with an average winter temperature of -46, absolute zero can’t feel that far away.