Questioning Roy Spencer: Can a cooler object warm a hotter object?

In the blog post “Yes Virginia Cooler Objects can make Warmer Objects warmer still” published in July 2010, Roy Spencer makes the following claim:

One of the more common statements is, “How can a cooler atmospheric layer possibly heat a warmer atmospheric layer below it?” The person asking the question obviously thinks the hypothetical case represented by their question is so ridiculous that no one could disagree with them.


In fact, this is happening all around us, all the time. The reason why we might be confused by the apparent incongruity of the statement is that we don’t spend enough time thinking about why the temperature of something is what it is.

  and posits the following thought experiment:

Imagine a heated plate in a cooled vacuum chamber, as in the first illustration, below. These chambers are used to test instruments and satellites that will be flown in space. Let’s heat the plate continuously with electricity. The plate can lose energy only through infrared (heat) radiation emitted toward the colder walls of the chamber, since there is no air in the vacuum chamber to conduct the heat away from the plate. (Similarly, there is no air in outer space to conduct heat away from the Earth in the face of solar heating.)

The plate will eventually reach a constant temperature (let’s say 150 deg. F.) where the rate of energy gain by the plate from electricity equals the rate of energy loss by infrared radiation to the cooled chamber walls.

Now, let’s put a second plate next to the first plate. The second plate will begin to warm in response to the infrared energy being emitted by the heated plate. Eventually the second plate will also reach a state of equilibrium, where its average temperature (let’s say 100 deg. F) stays constant with time. This is shown in the next illustration:

Roy justifies what he’s done with this statement:

But what will happen to the temperature of the heated plate in the process? It will end up even hotter than it was before the cooler plate was placed next to it. This is because the second plate reduced the rate at which the first plate was losing energy.

(If you are unconvinced of this, then imagine that the second plate completely surrounds the heated plate. Will the heated plate remain at 150 deg., and not warm at all?)

In the following few posts, I’m going to question the thought experiment and have a look at the Laws of Thermodynamics and how they apply to this situation.


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1 Response to Questioning Roy Spencer: Can a cooler object warm a hotter object?

  1. Gary says:

    As far as I can see, the electric heater is raising the temperature of the first plate and all the second plate is doing is slowing its heat loss. So no, the second plate really isn’t warming the first plate, although it contributes to its warmer condition by making the system more complex.

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