Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Power of Arbitrary Numbers

Ever put your hand in ice water?   It can be painful, enough so that Mythbusters used keeping a hand in ice water as their test for ability toresist pain.  We’ve given people the chance to do this as part of a kayak safety symposium, known as Paddlesmart.

   We called it the ice bucket.  It was a simple design.  A bucket of water had ice added to it to bring the temperature to about 45 degrees, which is about the temperature of the Gulf of Maine in May.  Volunteers placed their hand flat against the bottom, fingers spread, and keep it there as long as they could.  
   Throughout the evening, the water temperature was monitored.  As the ice in the bucket melted, water was removed and more ice is added to keep the temperature constant.

The first year we did this it became a contest between two people, an young adult male and an adult woman.  The male was very thin, he set a good time at first, but the woman bested him.  So he came back and tried again.  She bested him again. By the end of the evening, the young man struggled to set a new record.   He used his right hand to hold the left down, moaned and practically fell to the floor.    

Watching him go through all that, we decided he was the winner and closed the table.
The very sophisticated ice bucket sits beside the interactive activities table, you can see the thermometer on the table and the sensor wire going into the bucket

   The next year, in an effort to keep things calmer and prevent someone accidentally hurting themselves, we installed a time limit:  3 minutes.   Anyone who could keep their hand still on the bottom of the bucket for 3 minutes had their name put on the wall of fame.  (And we also noted that if they paddle in spring, they really should be prepared to get back into their boat within that time.)  At the end of the evening there were  17 names on the board.  Many of them were girl scouts hosting a nearby refreshment table who cheered each other on, applauding as each minute milestone was met.  About one-third of the people that attempted the ice bucket wound up with their names on the wall.  And no one looked like they were ready to collapse at the end.

   Limiting the time was really good I thought, as I packed the equipment away.  I was sure it was a good thing we didn’t do it as long as we’d done it the year before.  Until, at the bottom of the storage box, I happened on a scrap of paper with the times from the previous year.  And the winning time, the time which had caused that young man so much suffering?  Three minutes and 2 seconds.  All the other times on the list were much shorter, 30 seconds or so.

   Merely listing a concrete goal made the whole experience more bearable.   Plus, every time a name went up on the wall it was proof it was possible. Remember this as you make your plans for the New Year!


  1. My philosophy is rather simple. I don't stick my hands into an ice bucket or on a hot stove. I'm just not into that "pain" thing? However, the ice bucket does a great job to highlight what happens when just a portion of your body gets immersed into frigid waters. Hopefully, it gives folks "pause" so they don't do something really foolish like paddling in very cold waters without the proper cold weather gear.

    1. Yes; fortunately the guests at Paddle Smart got to make a choice about exposing themselves to cold water. Unfortunately, paddler heading out on a warm May day on Maine oceans, and peeking "just around the corner" don't always get to make that choice.