Thursday, October 15, 2009

Missable or Dismissable: Wikipedia entry on thermal conductivity

As I was trying to falling asleep last night, I moved my feet to the cool part of the sheets.

And as I did that, a question popped into my head: What makes a substance transfer heat well or poorly? I mean, for years I've taken for granted that the sheet will be cooler wherever my body wasn't touching it, but WHY? Really, deep down inside, WHY?

So this morning, I googled heat conductivity and thermal conductivity. Most of the results were for scientific papers and something called the Wiedemann-Franz Law, which if I didn't know better I would have assumed is something about privileged access to counterfeit cigarettes for Stasi informants in the GDR.

But after enough digging, I got a satisfactory answer to my question. In fact, I learned way more than I originally intended to. Now I can smugly explain that the easier a material heats up or cools down, the more freely its electrons wiggle around and hit one another; the better the dance party, the more conductive the material is. I also understand how air transfers heat through convection, and how conductivity increases from wood to alcohol to rubber to cement to glass to soil to ice to diamond. Mostly, thanks to wikipedia's entry on thermal conductivity and this handy page.

But is all that...

Missable or Dismissable?

My first instinct: fairly missable. I mean, in 20 minutes or so, I got a recap of an entire chapter of high school physics. All thanks to my wifi connection. Could I live without knowing that? Sure. Yet would my life be less fantastic, without that knowledge? Also yes. Bottom line: When I want to find something out, I can. If that's not exhilarating, I don't know what is.

But after mulling it over in the time between I reached that conclusion and I actually got around to writing this, my opinion changed.

A faster way to find out would have been to call my dad and ask. He's great at explaining things, and knows a great deal about the scientific world. When I was a little girl he was my key source for information about why the sun goes around the earth and how old Adam and Eve where when they had their sons. (Kidding.)

Besides my dad I could have asked AR, who as an engineer knows things about electrons.

Not only would that have been quicker and more efficient route (letting me bypass dozens of google results that involved scientific publications), but the information would have been tailored to me. Those people know how my brain works. AR learned long ago that if he wants to explain anything about his technical projects, he should put it in terms of shoes. (Seriously.)

So ultimately, for this query and others like it, the internet is:


[image one via pica + pixel, image two via Brooklyn Center]

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