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Exploring The Science Of CTA's Heat Lamps

By Chuck Sudo in News on Jan 7, 2015 7:00PM

The heat lamps on CTA's train platforms are as good a sign as the shorter days and freezing nose hairs that winter has a kung fu grip on Chicago. But do they really provide the welcome relief they're supposed to for riders waiting in a hawkish wind for a train? Do the lamps actually keep people warm?

Yes and no. The Tribune chatted with Brian Cannon, assistant professor of physics at Loyola University Chicago, who explained how the infrared lamps work to warm people. Since skin tissue is primarily composed of water, the heat generated from the lamps are absorbed by the water molecules on our skin. The process is similar to how sunlight on exposed skin makes us feel warmer.

That feeling is mitigated, however, by the layers of clothing we wear while waiting for the goddamn train to pull into the station, since infrared energy doesn't penetrate clothing, so when you're under one of those lamps you're only warming what parts of your body are exposed to the elements.


Now this doesn't mean you should head out in this weather in as few layers as possible and spend your afternoon watching trains pass while you stay warm half-naked under a heat lamp. Although if you do, email us the pics or it didn't happen! Also remind yourselves it's cold in Chicago at least seven months of the year and those lamps shut off on March 31, whether or not spring has arrived.