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Funny You Should Ask

By Eric Gerber

Yes, it’s time for another edition of“Funny You Should Ask,” the feature that encourages researchers and scholars to set scientific method on the shelf for a moment and take a more light-hearted approach. We present four University of Houston professors with a commonplace observation – last time, we wondered if breakfast is really the most important meal of the day – and invite them to respond. This time, we’re considering whether ...It’s Not the Heat, It’s the Humidity. Here are their responses – hot off the press, you might say.

TOPIC: It's Not the Heat, It's the Humidity

No Sweat

By Michael Harold

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity? Yeah, I’ve heard that and know it all too well because I’m a runner. But I’m also a chemical engineer. And as a chemical engineer we “know” about heat and mass transfer, and thermodynamics. There’s no better way to learn about heat and mass transfer than to go out and run a couple of miles in Houston during our “six” (and counting) months of summer. Sweat can be a wonderful thing as the evaporation process cools the skin and makes exercise bearable. But the problem with Houston humidity is that the sweat doesn’t evaporate as easily when there is a high level of moisture already in the air. Those liquid sweat molecules aren’t as likely to jump into the air if there’s too many of them there already! It’s called vapor-liquid equilibrium

Now some people say that running in the “steam bath” of Houston is a lot harder than running in the “dry heat” of Phoenix. Guess what? They’re right. And you don’t have to be a chemical engineer to know that! Now you just know why.

So, keep running. And may I suggest you sweat profusely because, yes, it IS the humidity! (And the heat doesn’t help!)

Harold is M.D. Anderson Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and serves as chair of that department. As founding director of the Texas Center for Clean Engines, Emissions & Fuels, he knows a lot about running hot.

Mumbai vs. Houston

By Vanessa Patrick

It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity? When I read that, my brain screams, “Wait a minute – it IS the heat!!!!” I don’t know about the humidity, but I know – possibly way too much – about the heat.

When I was an Assistant Professor, I published a paper with a dear friend and co-author on the impact of temperature (warm vs. cool) on cognitive processing. In our painstakingly-run studies, we had to create experimental rooms that were temperature controlled to assess the impact of small changes of temperature on consumer performance on difficult and risky (vs. easy and benign) tasks. We found that warm temperatures are depleting – in other words, it saps our mental and physical energy – and that makes us less able to perform difficult and risky tasks. Admittedly, our studies kept humidity constant, so I cannot speak to humidity from a scientific perspective. But from a personal perspective, since I grew up in Mumbai, India, in my book it is the heat, not the humidity, that really gets me!

By the way, my fellow Houstonians, even though your weatherperson reports similar levels of heat and humidity in Houston and Mumbai, believe me – you definitely “feel” hotter in Mumbai! Homes are not centrally air-conditioned, walking to take a train or bus in the afternoon sun is a given, and the pools and waterparks that we find so refreshing here are virtually non-existent.

Patrick is a professor of marketing in the Bauer College of Business and Director of Bauer Ph.D. Programs. Prior to her academic career, she worked in advertising and branding, serving as a consultant to companies like Coca-Cola, CNN and Hallmark.

Dry Up?

By Steven Pennings

Life began in the ocean, and our bodies remember. Nothing is better than when there is so much water in the air that they can’t even measure it, you have drops on your eyelashes, your clothes are sticking to your skin, and you’re not sure if you’re breathing or drinking something that Rosie made and served with pieces of fruit and a little umbrella.

Go to Arizona and see for yourself what happens without humidity. The ground is brown and their skin is leathery. They spend hundreds, maybe thousands, of dollars a year on skin lotions, and it doesn’t help. Is that what you want? To dry up and shrivel?

Some people pay money to sweat in hot yoga classes. My lab team gets the same benefits working in mangroves and grasslands. As the day warms, water rises out of the ground and you submerge. Sunscreen drips into your eyes and they burn. You might be swimming in the ocean. You know you’re working. Some volunteers can’t take it. They run to their car, crank the AC, drive to the mall where the cold air is bone dry, and we never see them again. But they’re making a terrible mistake. Sweat is sweet. It reminds you of the ocean; of the womb. Humidity reminds you that it is good to be alive.

Pennings, a Moores Professor in the department of biology and biochemistry, is director of the UH Texas Institute for Coastal Prairie Research and Education.

The Humid Condition

By Marty Melosi



It’s the Humidity, not the Heat.

You can hide from the sun in the shade.

Shiner beer or lemonade.
Jump in a pool.

A great big hat, a cotton shirt, cool sunglasses.
Indoors use a fan--or AC.

Humidity. Humility.

Outdoors and humidity don’t seem to mix.

Walk a block in the heat, but only a few steps in high

Wet is wet. Damp is damp. Moist is moist. Sweat is sweat.

No such thing as drip dry.

Mold and humidity—a lethal duo.

The tropics have their charms.
Pina coladas and coastal breezes clearly
are better than northern freezes.

What’s so bad about saunas and steam baths?

Try to keep curly hair curly in the baking sun.

Heat stroke, but no humidity stroke.

Skin cancer, but no humidity cancer.

And you can’t get a sunburn from humidity.

Melosi is Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen University Professor and Director of the Center for Public History at UH. Occasionally, he finds himself overcome with the poetic impulse.

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