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!”
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.