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How Does Coal Walking Work?

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 Physics   |   Science
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While some claim walking on hot coals is mind over matter, there's actually a science to not burning yourself, involving conductivity and insulation.

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Okay BrainStuff. It’s me, Jonathan. Let’s say you’re in northern Greece, or Bulgaria, or maybe Polynesia... and some villagers convince you that, “Y’know what? Walking barefoot through fire can’t be that bad… I’m willing to risk third degree burns to participate in their bonding ritual… thereby demonstrating the awesome power of my faith.”

But is it really “mind over matter” like some people say? How do people walk on hot coals without burning their feet?

Here’s the good news! There is a scientific answer. It involves heat conduction and insulation. For it to work, coal walkers light the fire well ahead of time and let it burn down to non-flaming coals.

I repeat: they’re walking on coals. Not fire. The embers can still exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, but with the right preparation, those trained can cross without burning their flesh.

See, the lightweight carbon structure of coal is actually a poor conductor of heat. This means it takes longer for the heat to transfer to human skin than a good conductor, like say... a burning metal pan. Water also has a high thermal capacity, which is why coal walkers let the wood burn down first, so the embers don’t retain water.

It also helps coal walkers to pat down and spread the coals, so there’s a flat surface that prevents their feet from digging in and scooping up hotter embers.

If they keep moving, each step should absorb relatively little heat. That’s why they’re “coal walkers” and not “coal standers,” otherwise their feet would sink and burn like bacon.

Finally, you ever notice how most coal walking is done at night? That’s because coal walkers cover their path with a layer of ash. If the sun were up you’d see this.

But at night, the glow is still visible through the layer. Ash is also poor at conducting heat. It blocks some of the warmth coming from the coals, transferring the heat even more slowly to your feet.

Even with this information about conduction and insulation, coal walking can still be dangerous. Sometimes a hot coal might get stuck to a foot. Tripping and falling can even be fatal. And watch out for misinformation about the physical principles behind this stunt. There are some claims out there that are simply not true and I wouldn’t want any BrainStuff fans to get hurt.


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