Friday, February 03, 2006

a question

A question, yes, but first a story. I quote:
The following is an actual question given on a University of Washington Thermodynamics mid term exam. The answer by one student was "so profound" that the professor shared it with colleagues, via the Internet, which is, of course, why we now have the pleasure of enjoying it as well.
Bonus Question: Is Hell exothermic (gives off heat) or endothermic (absorbs heat)? Support your answer with a proof.

Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law, (gas cools when it expands, and heats when compressed). One student, however, wrote the following:

First, we postulate that if souls exist, then they must have mass. Next, we need to know how the mass of Hell is changing as a function of time. To get that answer, we must know the rate at which souls are moving into Hell and the rate at which they are leaving. I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets into Hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.

As for how many souls are entering Hell, let's look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to Hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and since people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all souls go to Hell. With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect that the number of souls in Hell to increasing exponentially with time.

Now, we look at the rate of change of the volume in Hell because Boyle's
Law states that, in order for the temperature and pressure in Hell to stay the same, the volume of Hell has to expand proportionately to the number of souls added. This leads to two possibilities:

1. If Hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls are entering Hell, then the temperature and pressure in Hell will increase until all Hell breaks loose.

2. If Hell is expanding at a rate faster than the rate at which souls are entering Hell, then the temperature and pressure will drop until Hell freezes over.

So which is it?

If we accept the postulate given to me by Lois during my Freshman year that: "It will be a cold day in Hell before I sleep with you," and take into account the fact that I still have not succeeded in having such meaningful relations with her, then #2 cannot be true, and thus I must conclude that Hell is exothermic and will not freeze.
The student received the only "A" given.

Is this true? You can find instances of the story presented as fact all over the web. But, I'm sure we all know that repetition of a tale does not make it true. Myself, I side with the urban legend reference pages which say it started as a contribution to a internet newgroup back in 1997. The author of the urban legends piece goes on:
The piece quoted above likely began as a humor post to the newsgroup rec.humor in 1997. Its roots, however, are far older: an unattributed parody of a scientific proof concluding Heaven was hotter than Hell appeared in a 1972 edition of Applied Optics, a story found in a 1962 book (reprinted from a 1960 magazine) is a mathematical "proof" that heaven is hotter than hell, and article published in a 1979 edition of the Journal of Irreproducible Results written by Dr. Tim Healey (written as a response to the Applied Optics piece) carried the joke one step farther by arguing that Hell was hotter still. Though these older pieces don't directly correlate with what has now become a standardized bit of Internet lore, the themes are similar enough for us to postulate that the older versions sparked the newer ones.

Interestingly enough, the purported student's opening gambit, "We postulate that if souls exist, then they must have some mass," stands in opposition to the position taken centuries ago by the Roman Catholic Church. The Holy See had given its official approval to a particular line of scientific thought, the vacuum, to specificially allow for immaterial forms such as weightless souls and armies of angels in what would otherwise be a filled universe. Without vacuums, places where measurable matter does not exist, both Heaven and Hell and all their denizens would have no place in the cosmic order of things. The time-honored Aristotelian assertion "Nature abhors a vacuum" had to be (and was) elbowed out of the way because the vacuum was a theological necessity.

Barbara "it also scares cats" Mikkelson

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