Okay, this is my conclusion:
I messed things up by screwing with cpuspeed.conf.
The fact that the CPU seems to me to run slow isn't a problem -- given
that you say this is normal under low loads. (The machine does FEEL much
much faster than the 700mHz machine I was using before.) I am downloading
the kernel now and will try to get the load higher while compiling it; if
I really can't manage it I may post again.
Now that I have reset cpuspeed.conf to a lower temp, I believe it should
not hurt my hands -- and if I'm wrong I can try setting it even lower
during bio lectures -- and if THAT still doesn't work I will post again.
Thank you for reassuring me that the CPU behavior is normal, so that I can
stop breaking things in an attempt to get more speed; and thank you for
letting me know what normal temperatures are, so I can stop waking up at 3
am thinking "I am going to break that laptop only a month after I got it
and it cost SO MUCH MONEY." (Actually it cost very little compared to what
I feel like laptops ought to cost but it would be an awful lot to have to
spend again two months later :)