How warm is the weather today? It may be cold and wintry or hot and summery. Heat is a vital part of our lives. We need to keep our bodies comfortably warm with clothing, especially in cold conditions. If body temperature falls from its normal 37°C to below about 30°C, fatal hypothermia may set in.

We cook our food with heat using gas or electricity. Countless machines and industrial processes use heat, from making pottery or a photocopy to a steelworks or power station. Heat is also given off as a waste form of energy by many processes. In a power station most of the heat is used to generate electricity, but some is released as clouds of steam from huge cooling towers.

Heat is a type of energy – the vibrations of atoms and molecules. The more an atom moves or vibrates, the more heat or thermal energy it has. In a solid, the atoms have fixed central positions but each atom vibrates slightly about its central position, like a ball tied to a nail by elastic. Heat the solid and the atoms vibrate more. When they have enough vibrations, the atoms break from their fixed positions (the “elastic” snaps), and they move about at random. The solid has melted into a liquid. Heat it more and the atoms fly further apart. The liquid becomes a gas.


Cold is not the presence of something that opposes heat, but simply the lack of heat. Temperature is not the same as heat. Heat is a form of energy, while temperature is a measure of how much heat energy a substance or object contains. A slice of apple pie at 40°C contains more heat energy than a same-sized slice of the same pie at 30°C. We can judge its temperature quite accurately when we touch the slice with our skin, and especially with our fingertips or lips. But this judgement is only safe within a certain range. Temperatures greater than about 50°C or lower than about -10°C cause pain and may damage the skin. We measure temperatures accurately using devices called thermometers.

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