Posted in physics

The Physics of Fantasy

As often as I celebrate the combination of art and science, every once in awhile I do deem it necessary to point out when science and art probably don’t need to mix. This is another case of “science sucking all the fun out,” of a given situation or story or movie, but an interesting observation nonetheless.

This time, Chad Orzel of of Uncertain Principles discussed The Faulty Thermodynamics of Children’s Stories. Namely Goldilocks and the Three Bears, a childhood classic and one of my favorites. Hopefully you all know the general idea: a dumb kid breaks into a house occupied by three bears of varying size and proceeds to try out all their stuff, including their breakfast left cooling on the kitchen table as they go out for a morning stroll.

Orzel spends the entire post discussing why this story’s physics are faulty…

 “After all,” he explains, “the Papa Bear, being the biggest, presumably has the largest bowl of porridge…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!”

All this is done tongue in cheek, evidenced as Orzel aptly points out at the end, “Rather than trying out the chairs and beds, [Goldilocks] should have left the scene at once, and reported her findings to the nearest reputable physics lab.”

HOWEVER, as an obsessed fan, who actually defended Goldilocks in a mock trial in the 4th grade, will have to take umbrage with Dr. Orzel’s analysis. He makes generally safe assumptions, but they are nonetheless assumptions. The original stories never specified the size of said porridge bowls. Maybe the mother bear served her family the most porridge, leaving very little for herself; maybe she served her porridge first and it had more time to cool. (I must note I find this type of “maybe”ing everything more annoying than what Orzel has done, so I will stop here).

But mostly it is the same phenomenon when watching an action movie and having a friend repeatedly saying “that would never happen,” after each car blows up. I KNOW it would never happen in real life, that’s why it’s a m-o-v-i-e.

So, there is my rant. In a way I applaud Orzel’s insight and effort to point out thermodynamics (or lack of) to people in familiar settings, but I also roll my eyes at his observations. *eye roll*



Beth Kelley is an applied & digital anthropologist with an overall interest in how people engage with and are impacted by their environments and vice versa. This has manifested itself in many ways, by looking at creativity, playful spaces, built environments, and environmental enrichment, sustainability, design research, and integrative and collaborative models of learning such as through play and hands-on learning.