30% Hotter


RaftI’m reading The Memorist by M. J. Rose, a book which is in the same 100+ chapter genre as The DaVinci Code but which doesn’t sport its own diet.

Early on, some criminal-guy leads some journalist-terrorist-wanna-be to an underground area beneath Vienna.  After showing him the area beneath the main concert hall, they head back towards the outside world only to discover slashes in one of their rafts — a raft that might have looked a lot like the one in the picture above except that it was in a cave.  And was inflatable.

But at any rate, they needed those rafts because there was an underground lake that was really hot.  Now here’s the confusing part:

The water was thirty percent hotter than the human body’s temperature thanks to the geothermal heat under the lake’s bed.  If you tried to swim across you’d be boiled to death.

What, exactly, does 30% hotter than the human body’s temp mean?  My first thought was that the reference point should be absolute zero, or -459.7°F.  This would make the water (1.3)(98.6+459.7)-459.7, which simplifies to about 266°F.  This matches the line about scalding, but doesn’t quite fit later on when journalist-guy pulls the remaining raft from criminal-guy and dunks him into the water:

For a second David wondered if Wassong could somehow make it out.   No, he knew that was impossible.  He knew, because Wassong had warned him — no one survived the firewater.  Wassong was splashing wildly, displacing a circle of water around him.  He continued thrashing for fifteen seconds, thirty seconds, forty, and then all movement ceased.  Hans Wassong lay still, floating facedown in the boiling lake, his glasses bobbing beside him.

Despite the reference to boiling, I’m pretty sure that splashing would be kept to a minimum if the water were really 266°F.  So I don’t think that’s it.  Maybe, since we’re in Vienna, we’re supposed to use Celsius for our reference point.  The body’s temperature is 37°C, so the lake would then be (1.3)(37°C)=48.1°C, or about 118.6°F.  That’s hot, but not really hot enough to kill so quickly — the Honeywell Burn Chart says an adult could swim for 10 minutes before getting 3rd degree burns.   So that’s not it.

Well then, maybe we should use Fahrenheit, which would lead to (1.3)(98.6°F), or about 128°F.  Now we’re getting somewhere:  the 40 seconds corresponds pretty much exactly to how long before criminal-guy gets 3rd degree burns all over his body, and that’s going to make it tough for him to escape.

I confess, I’ve been waiting to see if this guy is really dead or if he’s going to appear at the last minute.  Nothing says, “See ya later!” like a claim that no one could have survived.

3 Responses to “30% Hotter”

  1. Barry Leiba Says:

    Nice. I’d have started with Fahrenheit, assuming that it’s an American author. But, really, it’s sloppy writing: why not just say, “The water was 130 degrees Fahrenheit, thanks to the geothermal heat under the lake’s bed.”? No one would really have any immediate sense of what that “30% hotter” thing means, so communication wasn’t did.

    (Also, I think I’d say “poached”, rather than “boiled”, at that temperature.)

    This reminded me of the post I did about a year ago, on “half as loud” vs “twice as quiet”.

  2. Chris Wellons Says:

    Freshwater shouldn’t be able to exist at a temperature of 266 degrees F in a normal atmosphere like that. It would stop at about 212 degrees F (or lower since they are probably above sea level) and just boil. That’s why double boilers are useful.

  3. Ξ Says:

    I like your post. I think of the difference in more quantitative terms, as if they were proportion. If a sound is a 60 on scale of 0-100 [not necessary sound intensity, this is more abstract than that] then half as loud would be a 30 [halve the 60] but twice as quiet would be a 20 [double the remaining 40 and then take the remainder out of 100]. But I don’t know what practical significance that has. None, I suspect.

    What I forgot to add in this post is that when I *first* read the 30% hotter, what I envisioned was relative to some ambient temperature like 68°F, where you don’t have to wear a coat but don’t feel warm either. Then the body’s temperature would be just over 30°F warmer than that, so the extra 30% would account for only about 9 or 10°F. But this would put it as less than 110°F, which would make for a leisurely swim across the lake so I discounted it right away even though it made the most internal sense to me.

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