How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works
 

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
 
Question 1165

I understand that an ear thermometer measures a person's temperature by studying the thermal radiation emitted by their ear. What is the farthest range that a person can emit thermal radiation that can still be received? Does this range depend on how hot the inner person is? — M
The thermal radiation that a person emits is mostly infrared light and, like all light, it can travel forever if nothing gets in its way. In principle, if you can observe something through a telescope, you can also measure its temperature. For example, astronomers can measure the temperature of a distant star by studying the star's spectrum of thermal radiation.

However, there are several complications when using this technique to measure a person's temperature. First, anything that lies between the person and you, and that absorbs or emit thermal radiation, will affect your measurement. That's because some of the thermal radiation that appears to be coming from the person may be coming from those in between things. Fortunately, air is moderately transparent to thermal radiation but many other things aren't. In fact, to get an accurate reading of person's temperature, you'd have to cool the telescope and the light detector so that they don't add their own thermal radiation to what you observe. You'd also have to use a mirror telescope because glass optics absorb infrared light.

Second, the temperature that you observe will be that of the person's skin and not their inner core temperature. That's because the person's skin absorbs any infrared light from inside the person and it emits its own infrared light to the world around the person. You can't observe infrared light from inside the person because the person's skin blocks your view. All you see is their skin temperature.

         

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