Friday, January 4, 2008

National Trivia Day: Fahrenheit and Body Temperature

Dr. Virago mentioned on her blog that today was National Trivia Day. To me, that sounded like a challenge.

I had many different amusing anecdotes that I considered expounding upon, and then while at work it came to me when a colleague asked to borrow a thermometer. I then had to interject into the conversation a bit of trivia gleaned from my high school Physics teacher about the Fahrenheit system and realized: "that's the trivia that I shall blog about."

Gabriel Fahrenheit had established the system of temperature measurement that is still used predominantly in non-scientific aspects of the United States. (Scientists and laboratories generally use the internationally favored Celsius scale.) The Fahrenheit scale seems strange today when there are such non-intuitive numbers such as 212 degrees as the boiling point of water and 32 degrees as water's freezing point. Why would anyone choose such a convoluted system?

Ah, because the freezing and boiling point of water were not the points used to calibrate his temperature scale.

Nope. Body temperature and the freezing point of saturated salt water were used.

Fahrenheit wanted body temperature to be the 100 degrees standard. It turns out, he was just a little off. That's why normal (read: average) body temperature is the relatively odd number of 98.6 degrees.

BTW, a minor pet peeve of mine is when people who are sick say they "have a temperature." Well, yes, of course they do. Even corpses have temperatures. In fact that is one of the methods coroners use to determine the time of death is to measure the temperature of a corpse. If you are sick what you probably have is a fever. /end tangential rant.

Fahrenheit also chose the freezing point of saturated salt water as his zero scale. The only reason that is of any importance to me is that I grew up in the state of Michigan and salt is used on the roads in winter to melt snow. However, if the weather is brutally cold then salt will not melt snow and does nothing other than provide traction for tires and rust the cars.

Detroit is built over a salt mine and so throwing salt on roads not only supports the local salt mine economy, it helps support the auto industry by making cars rust and forcing consumers to purchase replacements on a regular basis.

Okay, enough trivia, now time for an amusing anecdote:

My high school Physics teacher had a very dry sense of humor, and by the time I was a senior I had learned to appreciate it. One day when our Physics class was about to start an experiment I mentioned to him that I hated finding out a thermometer I was using had split mercury.

I wanted to carefully select a thermometer before the experiment started and any readings were taken.

It was then that Mr. Frank told me that there was one thermometer in the stock room that lacked a scale.

It was like we both had a light bulb go off over our head simultaneously. Mr. Frank and I colluded together on pulling off a practical joke on some of my classmates. We looked at each thermometer (about twenty or so in all) and found the one that lacked a scale. Basically it was a glass thermometer that merely had mercury in it with a white background. You could not tell what temperature it measured because like I said- it lacked a scale.

I took several thermometers and handed them out to the various groups. No one thought anything of my benevolent act, and I deliberately choose the group to give the booby-trapped thermometer. It went to the guys I liked to tease best.

I distinctly remember the words from my classmate Steve when he first recognized the problem, "Hey wait a minute here, Buck! There isn't a scale on this thermometer."

Mr. Frank walked over to the bench, nonchalantly peered down at it and said with a total deadpan look on his face, "Oh, well, you need to calibrate it."

As if Steve were nothing more than a latter day Gabriel Fahrenheit who had copious time left in the hour to not perform the experiment, but calibrate a thermometer as well. I know that ached with laughter as did those in my group whom I told about the joke after I returned to our bench.

Steve did not take the bait and instead went into the stock room to procure another thermometer. Oh, but I fondly remember my only experience of conspiring with a teacher to prank some of my fellow students and my teacher's masterful delivery of a punchline.

More on France soon!

Happy Trivia Day!


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