Firewalking: a sceptic's guide

 

The current craze for firewalking is fuelled by our natural fear of fire and the buzz attainable in overcoming that fear, writes Paul O'Donoghue. There is nothing paranormal or magical in this achievement.

The physics of firewalking is simple. If you walk briskly across a short distance on a substance that is a poor conductor of heat you are likely to survive unscathed. If, on the other hand, you attempt the same feat on a good conducting surface you will end up in the serious burns unit. Charcoal or wood embers are poor conductors and ideal for firewalking. Iron grids, being excellent conductors, would constitute a very poor choice indeed!

Some firewalking practitioners claim that they can surround themselves with a protective aura or force field that saves them from being burned. Three such believers were put to the test recently by psychologist Richard Wiseman on a BBC TV Tomorrow's World programme that was transmitted live. A 60-foot-long bed of burning embers was constructed and the participants were confident they could walk it easily. The laws of physics suggest a 12- to 15-foot walk should be easily achievable; a 20-foot walk achievable with difficulty; and success at a 60-foot walk is extremely unlikely. Two of the participants jumped off at the 20-foot mark with burned feet. The third participant then declined to participate.

Anybody can learn to firewalk, although there is always a risk of blisters. It will not change your life, nor is it a magical mind feat. It is simple physics.

Paul O'Donoghue is a psychologist and chairman of the Irish Skeptics Society. www.irishskeptics.net