The Faulty Thermodynamics of Children’s Stories

SteelyKid is not yet at the stage where I can usefully read to her– she likes sitting on my lap while I read just fine, but she’s more interested in trying to eat the pages than listening to the story. I was reminded this morning, though, that when she gets to bedtime-story age, I’m going to face some real dilemmas. Some of the classic stories teach dangerously wrong lessons about physics.

Take, for example, the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears (referred to at the end of the previous post). In the usual telling, Goldilocks comes upon the Bears’ house and finds three bowls of porridge. The bowl for the Papa Bear is too hot, the bowl for the Mama Bear is too cold, but the Baby Bear’s bowl of porridge is just right, and she eats it all.

The story may convey a useful moral message, but it’s way off base on the physics.

After all, the Papa Bear, being the biggest, presumably has the largest bowl of porridge. Here, the story fits what we know about thermodynamics, as the largest bowl should take the longest time to cool, and thus should be the hottest at any time before the porridge bowls reach thermal equilibrium with their environment.

The description provided of the other two bowls, though, is not consistent with known physics. The Mama Bear, as the other adult, ought to have the second-largest bowl of porridge, which, in turn, ought to be the second-warmest bowl of porridge (assuming that equilibrium has not been reached). But the story says that this bowl is too cold! Meanwhile, the Baby Bear, who ought to have the smallest portion of porridge, has a bowl that is “just right,” neither too not nor too cold. As the smallest bowl, though, the Baby Bear’s porridge ought to be the coldest of the three (until equilibrium is reached, of course). There is no way for the bowls as described to have the temperatures described, while being consistent with the known laws of thermodynamics.

The only way that the story can make sense is if, for some reason, the Mama Bear has the smallest portion of porridge. In which case, this is a story with a very different moral than the original– it’s a story about the oppression of the Mama Bear, either because the patriarchy is forcing her to eat only the scraps left behind after her husband and child have had their fill, or because the unhealthy woodland media culture has saddled her with a negative body image, leading to an eating disorder.

Or, possibly, it’s a story about the importance of knowing your physics. Upon entering the house and finding that the smallest bowl of porridge was hotter than the medium-sized bowl of porridge, Goldilocks should have known that something was amiss. She should have noticed that the normal laws of physics did not apply, and thus she was in the sort of story in which talking bears are likely to show up and eat you for trespassing in their home.

Rather than trying out the chairs and beds, she should have left the scene at once, and reported her findings to the nearest reputable physics lab, where they could bring in the equipment and expertise necessary to understand such peculiarly anti-entropic behavior. She would then have been rewarded with co-authorship on the resulting paper, rather than a nasty mauling at the paws of annoyed bears.

So, kids, pay close attention to your physics lessons. Thye may save your life, and put you on the fast track toward a tenured faculty position!