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Firewalking: Physics

ambience: firewalking music, drums

Every year, in Northern Greece a group of villagers gather to celebrate Saints Constantine and Helen in a very unusual way—they practice firewalking. I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by Dupont.

Loring Danforth is the author of Firewalking and Religious Healing, and he has a straightforward physics-based explanation for this visually amazing phenomenon.

“The best example to illustrate why people can walk on fire and not get burned is to think about a stove at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. And, if I open the stove and reach in with my hand and touch the air inside the stove, I don’t get burned because my hand is dense and heavy compared to the air, and so the air doesn’t heat up my hand. I don’t get burned. If however, I were to touch the metal in the stove I’d get burned right away because the metal—denser—conducts heat better than air does—and so heats up my finger really quickly and burns it. If there’s a cake in the oven, I can touch the cake a little bit, and not get burned. In a well prepared firewalk, the coals are about the consistency of the cake, and so the coals are light and fluffy, and even though they’re hot, they don’t conduct the heat to my foot—that’s 99% water—very well. And so if I don’t stay on too long, or don’t step on a nail or a penny, or step on a piece of wood that’s got pitch and sticks to my foot, then I probably won’t get burned.”

But Danforth says to keep in mind that for the villagers in Northern Greece, it doesn’t matter what we Westerners think. For them, being able to walk on coals is a sign of Saint Constantine’s divine protection.

To hear some of your favorite Pulse of the Planet programs again online, please visit our Web site at nationalgeographic.com.

Pulse of the Planet is presented Dupont, bringing you the miracles of science, with additional support provided by the National Science Foundation. I’m Jim Metzner.


First broadcast on 14-MAY-01

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