The physics of flat-warming (part I)

i shall not be so presumptuous in this series (this is science, after all) as to assume the invention of anything; for in the natural world — and hence the only world of which we can truly speak in terms of physics — there are no inventions, but only materials and methods awaiting discovery by some attentive, perceptive, intrepid soul. As has been said, “A physicist is the atoms’ way of thinking about atoms”. However, someone else has said, “Necessity is the mother of invention,” and so it is necessary for me first to consider some introductory points of necessity before i proceed to a rigorous scientific discussion of my discoveries in the study of flat-warming. (i will recount only the first of my discoveries in this paper. The study of flat-warming is a very broad and important field, and cannot be rushed.) 

Winter has truly arrived, and our flat has grown rather cold — currently it’s a cool 14 or 15 degrees Celsius inside despite the best efforts of the pale yellow rays of sun edging their way cautiously through the window; earlier, it was significantly colder. Now and then, a fine cloud of condensation levitates above my keyboard, causing the image on my screen to shimmer slightly, as if it were a mirage, leading me to wonder for just a moment if i’ve perhaps been staring at it for too long, or if my senses have been numbed by the gnawing cold. (Probably both.)

On Monday morning, as i rather reluctantly dragged my shivering body out of bed and shuffled slowly towards the window, i was entranced by the evidence of the first snowfalls of the season, daubing the tops of Simonsberg and the Jonkershoek range with wisps of cotton wool-white.

All of which is to say, by way of introduction, that it’s getting a little chilly in here. But spare a thought for the here: while you and i can don a fleece, a scarf, a beanie — or wrap up snugly in a blanket or sleeping bag — the poor flat is bereft of such essentials. It stolidly, reliably, unflinchingly protects us from the elements. It boldly bares its walls and windows to the howling winds, its foundations to the creeping damp, its roof to the driving rain. Without a murmur of complaint to those it shelters — or a settled debt of gratitude from those it shelters — it has withstood these attacks for decades.

i earnestly believe that it is time we recognised the beneficent sacrifices our flat makes for us; the altruism of our abode. Hence, i propose a flat-warming. i think it is fair to say, since i have myself been so unfeeling to the needs of our flat — for a whole summer! — that the reader will also feel the sudden pang of guilt, and will wonder just what can be done to remedy his or her own selfishness, to render to his or her flat the warm care it needs.


Our objective, then, is to warm our flats. (The thoughtful reader will no doubt understand that, for the purpose of this rigorously scientific paper, we must not entertain any affection for our flats; rather, we must deal with the rationalist, reductionist, and positivist dimensions which bound science and are the scope of this paper. “Warm”, therefore, should be understood strictly as it applies to raising the ambient temperature; its emotive connotations must dispassionately be done away with.)

Apparatus and materials

To conduct your own flat-warming experiments, you will need to equip yourself with an average flat and its contents. Scientists always favour the simplest explanation for a phenomenon, and we should take the same approach in proposing methods for flat-warming. For the purposes of this paper, and for simplicity’s sake, i will consider our flat in Stellenbosch, and its contents, to be average. (Actually, i think it’s quite nice, but we cannot let emotions interfere with our careful scientific enquiry, can we?)

Method I

It will be remembered from a previous paper that Mavis is very loyal and multi-talented. In fact, in all likelihood, she is the most famous washing machine on Facebook — if not on the face of the Earth.

In addition to washing clothes and floors, Mavis is able to warm the flat. Lesser washing machines use warm water to wash clothes, but Mavis is incredibly sensitive to the environment and to our electricity bill, and prefers not to use warm water. We admire Mavis’ eco-friendly convictions.

But how, then, i hear you ask, is Mavis able to warm the flat, if she does not use warm water? Even before we discovered that Mavis was able to wash clothes and floors simultaneously, we observed that she was able to warm the flat. The process is deceptively simple, but effective. In fact, it is an inherent quality of many washing machines, but Mavis naturally outdoes all others.

Once Mavis has washed and scrubbed the clothes offered her, she is diligent to drain as much water as possible from the soaking garments. Very diligent, in fact. Mavis has perfected the art of spinning, and it is a sight to behold. Nearby seismographs start quivering. Car alarms start flashing. Motion sensors blink to the beat: a veritable discotheque.


Of course, it is not only a sight to behold, but a sound, too. And therein lies Mavis’ flat-warming secret. The polymath versed in anatomy and physiology will no doubt remember that the sensation of sound is caused by airwaves vibrating the tympanic membrane of the ear, which transmits these vibrations to the three auditory ossicles (the incus, malleus and stapes), which in turn transmit the vibrations to the labyrinth of the inner ear and the cochlea, where they are converted to nerve impulses, thereby to be perceived as sound.

Errm, yes… But the basic physics of all of this, and the heart of the warming secret — or the heart-warming secret? — is that all those vibrations involve the air molecules, by means of which they are propagated, in a great flurry of activity. And just as we get warm when we are active, so all those air molecules generate heat as they bump into one another — and thus the flat is warmed. There is a bonus to this, too: in colder weather, the air is denser; so there are more air molecules being batted about as Mavis spins, resulting in greater heating.


Of course, Mavis is loyal not only to us, but also the the laws of physics — and especially to the laws of thermodynamics. Thus we can confidently assert that energy has been conserved within the system. Mavis has, in fact, taken electrical energy and converted it to kinetic energy, as a result of which a degree (or two) of heat energy has been produced.

And we are very thankful to Mavis for thus obeying the laws of thermodemonics, errm, thermodynamics.


While Mavis is exceptionally multi-talented, we do not suggest exploiting too many of her talents simultaneously. To wit, it will be remembered that we have already demonstrated experimentally that Mavis is quite capable of washing clothes and floors simultaneously; in the preceding paragraphs we have also shown that Mavis is able to warm the flat while washing. It is not suggested, however, that these three tasks be attempted simultaneously. It would hardly be kind to the flat to subject it to a deluge of cold, dirty water while washing clothes, as this would not be satisfactorily compensated for by the warming effects. Thus, while it is possible for Mavis to wash the floors and warm the flat simultaneously, the two abilities should preferably be treated as mutually exclusive.


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