The Physics of Fire Is a Lot Simpler Than Expected

If you are a fan of reality survivor shows, you have probably caught yourself wondering if it is possible to really start fire without matches in the middle of the freezing cold tundra. And though it is not likely that the people on the show are particle physicists, they are utilizing the same physical principles that physicists study every day in order to start a fire and survive in the wilderness. Learning a few principles of physics may just be what you need to keep living when you have virtually no resources.

Take the classic scene of rubbing two sticks together to make a fire. While this seems basically impossible, it is not, though it is highly ineffective. Because oxygen requires a high temperature to meet the threshold required for it to bond with carbon (the bonding of which is a violent snap that produces heat and light... fire), rubbing two sticks across each other is not likely to produce very much heat very quickly. Much heat is lost as the one stick moves to far away from any one central spot.

A much better approach is to either split one stick lengthwise if possible, or make a small notch with which to hold the other still, then with the split stick on the ground in front of you and blocked from the wind, stick the tip of the second stick in a notch (vertically) and roll it very fast between your fingers so the tip is constantly moved back and forth in the central place of that notch. This ensures that as much friction as possible is in the place of contact, and subsequently the heat is kept in the same place, allowing the temperature to rise and eventually overcome the threshold required for carbon to begin bonding with oxygen (fire!). Once enough of these reactions have been generated, they are able to continue to heat and cause others, so long as sufficient fuel is available.