Prof. Disbrow heats up to the subject of temperature
Last month’s article(s) on climate change got me thinking about “heat.” What is it exactly, and how hot can things actually get?
When I was a lad, my father told me something that blew my little mind: “There’s no such thing as ‘cold,’ son. What you call ‘cold’ is just an absence of heat.” It took me a while to process this, and it still floats through my mind whenever I think, “It’s cold in here.”
So, what is heat? It turns out that this is a pretty complicated question. In the simplest terms, heat is the transfer of energy from an object with a higher temperature to an object with a lower temperature. That warmth you feel coming from your microwaved burrito? That’s heat.
A better question is: What is temperature? This is also pretty complicated. But, in simple terms, temperature is the measure of something’s ability to transfer heat to the things around it. The “hotter” something is, the faster it can transfer heat to something else. Simplest version: The faster something can transfer heat to you, the worse it will burn you.
Over the years, we’ve come up with several scales to measure temperature. Those are:
Fahrenheit (°F): This is what we use here in America. Strangely, it sets the freezing point of water at 32°F and the boiling point of water at 212 °F. For me, a pleasant day on this scale is between 68 °F and 82 °F.
Celsius (°C): This is the scale the the rest of the world uses. Once you get used to it, it makes a lot more sense. Water freezes at 0 °C and boils at 100 °C. Simple. A nice day, measured in Celsius, is between 20 °C and 28 °C.
Kelvin (K): This is the scale that Science (with a capital “S”) uses to measure temperature. It starts by setting the coldest temperature possible at 0 K. This is called “Absolute Zero.” Water becomes ice at 273.15 K and boils at 373.15 K. A nice day on this scale would be between 293.15 K and 301.15 K. (Note that Kelvin doesn’t use the “degrees” symbol.)
Now that we have our scales, let’s look at some points of interest, temperature-wise:
Absolute Zero: 0 K, -273 °C, -459.7 °F. This is the lowest possible temperature. At this point, all motion stops. Atoms don’t move. Even outer space isn’t this cold… it’s actually a sweaty 2.73 K.
Coldest official recorded temperature ever on Earth: 183.9 K, -89.2 °C, -109.3 °F. Recorded in Antarctica on July 21, 1983.
Mean temperature on Mars: 210 K, -63 °C, -80 °F. (Antarctica is seriously cold, y’all.)
Intersection of the °C and °F scales: 233.3 K, -40 °C, -40 °F. Skin freezes almost instantly at this temperature.
Mean temperature on Earth: 287 K, 14 °C, 57 °F. Wear a light sweater.
Average body temperature for a human: 310.0 K, 36.8 °C, 98.2 °F. My son’s average temperature is 0.5 °F cooler than this. Mine is about 0.5 °F higher.
Usually fatal fever for a person: 315 K, 42 °C, 108 °F. A horrible way to go. (Not that freezing is much better.)
Third-degree burn: 333.2 K, 60 °C, 140 °F. Skin must be exposed to this temperature for five seconds to get a third-degree burn. Three seconds will get you a second-degree burn. So, keep your water heater set to 120 °F, just to be safe. (At this lower temperature, the time for a second-degree burn is eight minutes, and it takes 10 minutes for a third-degree burn.)
Melting point of lead: 600.4 K, 327.5 °C, 621 °F. If you cast your own miniature dragons, you already know this.
Average temperature on Venus: 735.4 K, 462 °C, 864 °F. Global warming run amok.
Lava: 1,473 K, 1,200 °C, 2,192 °F. If you are thinking that this should be 7,800 °F, you are probably a Bon Jovi fan.
Surface of the sun: 5,778 K, 5,505 °C, 9,941 °F. Maybe not as hot as you thought it was. Still, hot.
Atmosphere of the sun: 2,000,273.15 K, 2,000,000 °C, 3,500,000 Million °F. Hot enough to complain about here, 93 million miles away.
“Absolute Hot”: A concept that considers the highest possible temperature for matter. It’s also known as the “Planck Temperature” and it has a value of 1.416785 × 1032 K. Toasty.
So, the next time someone complains about the heat, just remind them, “It could be worse. We could be on Venus...or listening to Bon Jovi.”
Steven Disbrow is a computer programmer who specializes in e-commerce and mobile systems development. He’s also an entrepreneur, comic-book nerd, writer, improviser, actor, sometime television personality and parent of two human children.