Does stuff cool faster in the freezer than in the fridge?

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Dear Cecil: Help, Cecil! We’ve been having a ferocious argument for the last hour, and if you don’t come to our rescue, tragic violence will surely result. My cute but mentally retarded girlfriend insists that if I want to make the six-pack of Budweiser that I just bought cool off faster, I should put it in the freezer rather than the regular part of the refrigerator. I calmly replied that this is bullshit, things cool off at the same rate whether you put them in the freezer or not (I’m sure I read this somewhere). But she doesn’t believe me! She thinks I’m nuts! Cecil, I love this woman dearly, and I cannot bear to see her crushed by this burden of ignorance. Please explain to her that I am right and she is wrong (as usual), and restore peace to our once-happy household. Daniel C., Los Angeles

Cecil replies:

Dear Daniel:

Sorry, chump, but your girlfriend’s opinion of your sanity is depressingly accurate, as the following lesson in heavy-duty physics will make clear. The mechanics of heat transfer are a bit complicated, so to simplify things we’ll just concentrate on the heat that’s transferred through the aluminum sides of the beer cans (I know you asked about cold, not heat, but think about it like this: when heat is transferred out, cold is transferred in).

The process involved here is conductance, and it’s governed by the following ineluctable equation, known as Fourier’s Law (yes, _the_ Fourier):

Q = (K x A x delta T)/L

To translate this into English, Q is the amount of heat transferred per second; K is the conductivity of aluminum (heat travels through aluminum pretty fast, in case you’re interested); A is the surface area of the can; T is the difference between the fridge temperature and the beer temperature; and L is the thickness of the sides of each beer can. No doubt you find this baffling, Daniel, but I want you to concentrate your mental powers upon it until it becomes clear to you.

Now, in studying Fourier’s Law, we are led to one inescapable conclusion–the bigger the difference between the beer temperature and the fridge temperature, the more heat is transferred per second. The more heat is transferred per second, the faster the beer gets cold. Therefore it makes sense to put the beer in the coldest part of the fridge, namely the freezer. Hand the little lady a brew and apologize.

Cecil Adams

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