Claim: A student came up with a clever proof and pithy saying in response to an exam question about the physical properties of Hell.
Example:[Collected via e-mail, 1997]
A true story. A thermodynamics professor had written a take home exam for his graduate students. It had one question:
"Is hell exothermic or endothermic? Support your answer with a proof."
Most of the students wrote proofs of their beliefs using Boyle's Law or some variant. One student, however, wrote the following:
First, we postulate that if souls exist, then they must have some mass. If they do, then a mole of souls can also have a mass. So, at what rate are souls moving into hell and at what rate are souls leaving? I think that we can safely assume that once a soul gets to hell, it will not leave. Therefore, no souls are leaving.
As for souls entering hell, lets look at the different religions that exist in the world today. Some of these religions state that if you are not a member of their religion, you will go to hell. Since there are more than one of these religions and people do not belong to more than one religion, we can project that all people and all souls go to hell.
With birth and death rates as they are, we can expect the number of souls in hell to increase exponentially.
Now, we look at the rate of change in volume in hell. Boyle's Law states that in order for the temperature and pressure in hell to stay the same, the ratio of the mass of souls and volume needs to stay constant.
So, if hell is expanding at a slower rate than the rate at which souls enter hell, then the temperature and pressure in hell will increase until all hell breaks loose.
Of course, if hell is expanding at a rate faster than the increase of souls in hell, than the temperature and pressure will drop until hell freezes over.
It was not revealed what grade the student got.
Commonly, the piece begins with a statement meant to authenticate the story. "An actual question given on University of Washington chemistry midterm," "from a Yale professor," and "Dr. Schambaugh, of the University of Oklahoma School of Chemical Engineering, Final Exam question for May of 1997" have been spotted so far.
Sometimes the student's comments culminate in the assertion that hell must be exothermic because a girl he'd been chasing had sworn it'd be a cold day in hell before she'd sleep with him, and he'd so far been unable to get to first base with her.
Often the story concludes with "The student received the only 'A' given on the exam."
Origins: The piece quoted above appears to have begun its Internet life as a humor post to the newsgroup rec.humor in 1997. Its roots, however, are far older: The original was written by Paul Darwin Foote, a scientist noted for his pioneering work in the field of high temperature measurement, and dates to about 1920, when it appeared in the house organ of the Taylor Instrument Company. In that article, "The Temperature of Heaven and Hell," Foote drew scientific deductions from descriptions of the states of various material substances as described in the Bible to
conclude that Heaven was hotter than Hell. The item was penned as a humor piece and was written at a time in Foote's career when he was well established, thus
any notion that it was the work of a cheeky student out to impress his professor should be dismissed.
The item subsequently appeared as an unattributed parody in a 1972 edition of Applied Optics and as a story published in a 1962 book (reprinted from a 1960 magazine). An article published in a 1979 edition of the Journal of Irreproducible Results written by Dr. Tim Healey (penned as a response to the Applied Optics piece) carried the joke one step further by offering a refutation proving that Hell was indeed hotter than Heaven.
Interestingly enough, the Internet-circulated version's opening gambit, "We postulate that if souls exist, then they must have some mass," stands in opposition to the position taken centuries ago by the Roman Catholic Church. The Holy See had given its official approval to a particular line of scientific thought, the vacuum, to specifically allow for immaterial forms such as weightless souls and armies of angels in what would otherwise be a filled universe. Without vacuums, places where measurable matter does not exist, both Heaven and Hell and all their denizens would have no place in the cosmic order of things. The time-honored Aristotelian assertion "Nature abhors a vacuum" had to be (and was) elbowed out of the way because the vacuum was a theological necessity.