If you have steel and wood at 0 °C, which feels colder? If you have steel and wood at 100 °C, which feels hotter?

1 Answer
Oct 17, 2014

The answer is a little surprising. This demonstration gets at what happens when you sense temperature. But I wouldn't recommend doing it exactly as described. At 0º C the steel will feel colder than the wood. So far, the experiment is safe. At 100º C the steel will seer your flesh much quicker than the wood. Both will be too hot to handle. The actual impression may depend on your tolerance for pain.

It is likely that this question was originally stated with 100º F as the upper temperature. Some well-meaning instructor attempted change to standard SI units without choosing a reasonable hot temperature. Let's proceed assuming upper temperature is a more modest 40º C. That's fairly hot for bath water, but not intolerable.

When your skin comes into contact with an object which has a temperature different than that of your body, heat is transferred. The rate of heat transfer depends on the heat capacity of the object and the temperature difference. Room temperature air is cooler than your body. You loose heat into the air constantly. Room temperature metal objects feel cold when you touch them because they are able to transfer heat much faster than the air. Room temperature wood does not feel as cold because it is not able to transfer heat as quickly as the metal. Though they may feel cooler than the air.

Objects above your body temperature do the same thing. However, the heat transfer goes the other way. Heat from the object warms your body. A 40º C metal object will feel hotter than a wooden object at the same temperature.