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MythBusters - the Switzerland episode

posted by Martin Rubli at 14:48

Since Taiwan has been firmly in the grip of winter for the last two months I thought it was a good time to do away with a widespread stereotype; Swiss people being resistant to cold.

To make sure we're on the same page I want to mention that when I'm talking about winter in Taiwan that means temperatures that drop as low as 10-15 °C (that's 50-59 F if you're unlucky enough to measure temperature relative to the smelly armpit of a Polish physicist's wife). That may not sound particularly cold but it sure feels cold when the humidity is 80% or higher and live in a windy city.

With a body fat percentage of under 13% which, thank you very much, puts me in the category of "Athletes", you'll naturally see and hear me shiver a lot or complain about the cold. This draws a lot of wonder from my Taiwanese friends and colleagues who think that with Switzerland regularly having sub-zero (again Celsius scale, not armpit icicles) temperatures I should be running around in shorts and a T-shirt instead of hugging my oil heater.

Myth: Swiss people are immune to cold.

Analysis: There are two important factors here:

  1. Humidity. Swiss winter is very dry and hardly windy unless you happen to live in a few particular areas. I don't know how to put the felt temperature at different air humidity in numbers, but it certainly makes a difference. (There's a formula here but, not surprising given their origin, the nice tables don't go very far towards the cold.) Whatever the numbers may say, 0 degrees at 10% humidity just feels less penetrating than 13 degrees at 80%.

  2. Insulation. Unless you've been traveling to Europe and paying attention to that detail you may not be aware that our houses (and jackets for that matter) are massively insulated. Our walls are not just made from thin wall elements (or reinforced cardboard in some other Western countries ...) but from carefully engineered bricks with layers of insulation that minimize heat transfer. Together with double glazed windows and a central heating system that makes for a cozy home and reasonable heating costs.

Verdict: Myth busted!

Luckily winter is short in Taiwan! Last week we've already had temperatures in the mid-20's and my summer clothes are getting ready to come out of hibernation.

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