Scientists Say: Kelvin

This is a temperature scale based around the concept of ‘absolute zero’


Sure, this snow is zero degrees Celsius. But it’s a whopping 273 kelvins.


Kelvin (noun, “KEHL-vin”)

This is a temperature scale that physicists, astronomers, chemists and others in the physical sciences often use. Each unit kelvin is equal to the same change in temperature as a degree Celsius. But while Celsius places zero at the freezing point of water, kelvin places zero at absolute zero. This is the lowest possible temperature, where molecules can’t move. How cold is it? Zero kelvin is equal to −273.15° Celsius or −459.67° Fahrenheit.

The kelvin scale is named after the physicist William Thompson, the first Baron Kelvin. In the mid-1800s, he was the first person to correctly figure out just how cold absolute zero was. 

The symbol for kelvin is “K,” and it does not use the term “degrees.” So if it’s 18 °C outside, it’s also 64 °F and 291 K.

In a sentence

Scientists have been able to bring atoms down to 50 trillionths of a kelvin, but they haven’t yet hit absolute zero.

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Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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