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Explainer: Why Don't Fire Walkers Burn Their Feet?

Slate Magazine Follow
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  • 9 years ago
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Twenty-one people were treated for burns after walking across a bed of hot coals at a recent inspirational event hosted by motivational speaker Tony Robbins in San Jose, California. About 6,000 people reportedly participated in the firewalk. Why were most of them not injured?

Because coal isn't a very good conductor of heat. Though coal can get very hot—usually between 1,000 F and 2,000 F—it doesn't transmit the heat to other materials very efficiently. When skin touches a good conductor of heat--like metal--it usually results in a burn, because
the metal heats up the flesh quickly. Coal and the ash covering it don't conduct well, so our skin actually cools the outer surface of the coal faster than the coal's heat can sear the flesh...at least not at first.

That's why if you stand on a hot coal for too long, or if there are any bits of better conductors in the fire, like metal, wood, or sap, you can get burned. The same is true if a hot piece of coal gets stuck to your foot. The scale of Robbins' firewalk in San Jose—6,000 people sharing a dozen 10-foot-long lanes of coals—might have created some human traffic, and thus contributed to injuries.

Firewalking rituals developed independently in places like Greece, Fiji, and India. Many
proponents claim that success comes from either a heightened psychological state or supernatural protection. Robbins has written that "people change their physiology by changing their beliefs," and one of the burned firewalkers told the San Jose Mercury News he was injured because he "didn't get into the right state." But physicists and anthropologists who have participated in firewalks say it's really about coal preparation and not, as they say, dragging your feet.
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