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Jul 21 2012

21 Burned, In Clear Lack Of Faith

All the misses and the misters
Who walked barefoot over coals
And whose tootsies got some blisters
In defiance of their goals
Will be told they lacked conviction
Or they’d overcome the heat—
It’s a victim-blaming fiction,
And a scam that can’t be beat

You can pay a lot of money
To achieve a state of mind
But it’s still a little funny
(Though, in truth, a bit unkind)
That a walk across some fire
Had a lesson to be learned…
Have a care whom you admire;
Trust a fraud, and you’ll get burned

Tony Robbins has made a career out of teaching people to walk on coals. It’s easy to do; I’ve done it. It’s simple physics, unless you ask someone like Tony Robbins. The San Jose Mercury has a nice report on the latest incident, in which an event “attended by thousands” resulted in at least 21 people being treated for second and third degree burns to their feet.

The victims will, of course, be blamed. Others managed to walk on the hot coals without injury, so there must be some problem with those who were unable. This is, as you might guess, bullshit. In truth, though, it’s a bit more interesting than some bullshit. You see, different possible naturalistic explanations have been floated (if you follow the Mercury link, you will see some in the comments), and some have fared better than others. For instance (not mentioned in the story, and not mentioned by name in the comments), the leidenfrost effect could insulate feet, if they were wet–a drop of water on a very hot skillet will just skip about on a blanket of steam, and take longer to evaporate than a drop on a not-so-hot skillet.

But feet do not need to be wet to walk on coals. Mine weren’t. There is a simpler explanation, and it has nothing to do with “mind over matter”. There is a difference between temperature and heat, and that difference makes all the difference in the world. Bake a loaf of bread–when it is beautifully crusty and done, stick your hand in the oven. The air might be at 350-400 degrees F, as is the loaf of bread, as is the metal rack. You can touch the air for minutes, the bread for seconds, and the metal rack… you’ll get burned if you touch it for even one full second. The coals and ashes of a wood-burning firewalk have very high temperatures, but relatively low heat capacity.

The neat thing is, we have known this for a long time. The Mercury article cites Dr. David Willey, a physicist at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, but it could have reached back a century to cite Harry Houdini. In Houdini’s “Miracle Mongers and their Methods” he reveals the methods of fire-walkers, fire-eaters, and others. It was from Houdini that I learned what sort of wood to use for my own fire walk (birch, though that is not the only choice), and how to prepare the fire pit (deeper than I expected, to avoid stepping on a coal without it having room to move)

I just switched TV channels to the news, and found lots of people talking about this incident–saying BS like “it’s amazing what your mind can do!”

No.

I guarantee I can put together a firewalk, with glowing coals at over a thousand degrees (F), that you could walk through without injury… BUT I could also give you a length of blacktop at a much lower temperature that would blister your feet to cross. This is not mind over matter, this is physics.

And really, what I have seen in the media is not journalism, it has been sensationalism.

Also, see Kylie’s post for more coolness. Or hotness, whatever.

14 comments

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  1. 1
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    You can also try jamming your finger into the freshly baked loaf of bread, just to experience the amazing heat capacity of water. More fun: Experience the latent heat of phase changes – get burned by steam.

  2. 2
    Trebuchet

    The Mythbusters did a very good episode on firewalking. Kari, Tory, and Grant were taught how to do it (the non-woo-woo method) and succeeded. They then had Adam go through the coals without the proper methodology, burning his feet.

  3. 3
    eigenperson

    I do not think it is advisable to have wet feet when walking on coals. The water can cause pieces of very hot coal and ash to stick to your feet, which is very bad!

  4. 4
    naturalcynic

    …saying BS like “it’s amazing what your mind can do!”
    No.

    It is a bit of mind control, but not in the way of woo – overcoming a very natural fear and the simplistic logic that says that you will get burned, so DON”T DO IT.

  5. 5
    grumpyoldfart

    In 1992 the Adelaide Crows football coach (Graham Cornes) set up a player’s retreat and tried to toughen them up with a bit of firewalking. He didn’t have a clue what he was doing and probably thought the hotter the better. First player across was Nigel Smart who suffered severe burns to his feet.

  6. 6
    carpenterman

    If these “mind over matter” guys are so sure that THEY are controlling what happens to their bodies… why don’t they try the other “elements” as well? Can they fly? Survive underwater without drowning? Get buried alive and come out uninjured?
    Note how these mystical “powers” people gain through “mind over matter” are always demonstrated some way that physics and biology say will work, no matter what you believe.
    Did you know I can take a pile of ordinary wood and turn it into a house? Miraculous!

  7. 7
    Hank Fox

    Nice piece! I linked to you and Mano both in my own post on the subject: Toasty Toes at Tony Robbins Event

  8. 8
    dean

    I wonder how the pain of the burns compared to the embarrassment of admitting they paid to hear Tony Robbins speak.

  9. 9
    lorn

    Well … there is a ‘mind over matter’ aspect. Fire walking is about pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. Your mind convinces you to perform an unnatural act, and then it convinces you that you have done something so miraculous as to be not so much unnatural as supernatural.

    Which completely defeats the one good thing that can come from this sort of thing, understanding that you can push yourself to do things you don’t think you can do. And most of the time, if you use a little sense, you can get away with it.

  10. 10
    ChristheAtheist

    A little “hot foot” never hurt anyone. OK, maybe a little. Yes, with all due respect to Tony, it really is all smoke and mirrors. It’s just a simple trick. I’ve done it and it is so easy to fake. It’s all in the prep. ;)

  11. 11
    Hamkap

    “Resulted in at least 21 people being treated for second and third degree burns to their feet..”

    Hey, at least they didn’t suffer 4th degree burns…

    WIKIPEDIA: • Second-degree burns affect both the outer and underlying skin causing pain, redness, swelling, and blistering.

    • Third-degree burns extend into deeper tissues. They cause white or blackened, charred skin

    • Fourth -degree burns extend into your soul & strip away your “Personal Power”

  12. 12
    Cuttlefish

    pfft…. Ok, Hamkap–I was not expecting that. I’d say “well done”, but the line cook in me revolts…

  13. 13
    Crudely Wrott

    They (the 21 who were burned) must have stopped at some point in their trek out of sheer wonder or maybe just to reflect on what they were getting for their money. Either way it would be painful.

    Really, anyone who has camped out and made fire or has a fireplace knows how easy it is to pick up a glowing coal that has flown from the fire and toss it back. If it were not so my fingers would all be burned to stumps. It didn’t cost me a dime to discover, either. Just a bit of boldness.

  14. 14
    Stevarious, Public Health Problem

    What’s really interesting is when I was a kid being raised in fundie-land, fire-walking was presented to me as a thing that Satanists did. They supposedly had to invite demons in to protect them from the fire. When I first saw this story over at Kylie’s blog, I thought back and wondered, would they be relieved to find out it’s just a physics trick? But no, of course not – they would rather believe in the whole ‘spiritual warfare’ shtick.

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