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ASK YOUR SCIENCE TEACHER

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This week’s question was asked by a neighbor.

QUESTION: Why does a faucet feel cold, but a towel feels much warmer?

ANSWER: Most faucets and other plumbing fixtures in the kitchen and bathroom are made of metal. If they are in the same room, they are the same temperature. However, metal is a good conductor of heat. Our hand on the faucet is conducting heat from our body. If the body loses heat, we feel cold. The towel is not a good conductor of heat, so very little heat is lost from the body.

It’s the same thing with flooring. A tile floor feels colder than a carpeted floor. A tile floor, say in the kitchen, and a carpeted floor in the living room, are at the same temperature. But tile is a fairly good conductor of heat. Our feet lose heat conducted to the tile. For the carpet, practically no heat loss.

Normal body temperature for adults varies from 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit. The most frequently quoted normal is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s a bit lower in the morning when we wake up and higher later in the day. It rises a couple of degrees if we exercise vigorously. Body temperature rises of we get an infection. Up in the 104 to 105 degree range is dangerous.

Viruses have had millions of years to evolve to work best at a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Centigrade). The proteins that viruses use to make copies of themselves work best at that normal body temperature.

If the temperature of the body goes up by one, two, or three degrees, the proteins break apart and the viruses stop multiplying. In a sense, a fever is good. It is a sign that the body is trying to fight off infections. That hot forehead signifies that your body is putting up a good struggle against the foreign invaders!

The highest recorded body temperature, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was Willie Jones, who was admitted to the hospital with heatstroke and a body temperature of 115.7 degrees Fahrenheit. Jones, age 52, was discharged from an Atlanta hospital after 24 days.

The lowest body temperature ever recorded belonged to a young radiologist in Norway. In May 1999, Anna Bagenholm was skiing with friends when she experienced a freak accident. Her skis caught the snow in an odd way. She lost her skis and tumbled and slid until she hit a frozen stream, broke through the ice, and was submerged in the frigid waters.

She was trapped under the ice but found an air pocket to maintain breathing. It was 80 minutes before friends got her out of the ice-cold water. All the while her core temperature dropped. She was helicoptered to the hospital. Her body temperature was measured to be 56.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Anna was put on a heart-lung machine to warm her blood. She was in a coma for 10 days. It took years before she was able to walk and eventually ski again. Ten years after the skiing accident, Dr. Anna Bagenholm started work as a radiologist at the same hospital where her life was saved.

There are three methods of heat transfer; conduction, convection and radiation. Conduction is a molecule-to-molecule process, like holding a poker in a fire. The heat is transferred from one end of the metal poker to the end your hand is holding. Convection is heat transfer by air or water currents. An example is the warm air coming out of the furnace flues.

Radiation is heat transfer by rays or electromagnetic waves. An example is holding your hand above a hot burner or laying in the sun to get a tan.

Send questions and comments to: lscheckel@charter.net.

Larry Scheckel is a retired Tomah High School physics teacher.

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Tomah Journal editor

Steve Rundio is editor of the Tomah Journal. Contact him at 608-374-7785.

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