Monday, July 29, 2013

Why Does Grandma Smell Like Toast?

Another fun and weird science post! I first put this up on my blog back on August 30, 2005. It's pretty low brow, but damn fascinating. 

I am in Dallas for work, so I promise to catch up when I get back in town on Wednesday.


Warning: The following post is a little if you're faint of heart or you are eating, you might want to skip this. I know you sickos will keep reading, of course...
On July 2, 1951, Mary Reeser brought Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) to the forefront of scientific investigation. Her death is so bizarre, it really defies logical explanation.

Ms. Reeser had said goodnight to her visiting son and was last seen sitting in her easy chair of her modest St. Petersburg, FL apartment. Her neighbor, Ms. Carpenter was awakened by smoke, and traced it to Mary Reeser's door - which was scolding hot.

What firefighters and police found was immensely gruesome and incomprehensible. Mary's 170 pound body was nothing more than 10 pounds of ashes, her skull that had shrunk to the size of an orange, and her left foot completely intact. The room showed signs of heat damage - plastic was melted on switches and outlet covers, melted wax from her candles, and her chair was severely damaged. But that was it no widespread fire damage at all.

Dr. Korgman of the University of Pennsylvania that performed the pathology exam was baffled. He said it would take temperatures of more than 3000 degrees to do destroy a body so...especially the bones. With that much heat generated, the entire apartment - the entire building - should've gone up in flames. It's a classic case of SHC.

So what happened? Is SHC real? There are several theories out there:

1)Alcoholism...probably perpetuated by Charles Dickens in one of his novels where a drunk spontaneously combusts. They did an experiment where they saturated human flesh and tried to light it. Sounds like a Beavis and Butthead episode to me. The flesh didn't burn much.

2)Divine intervention...this was popular in the 17th century, particularly in the less-education population. I guess the thinking was you look at your cousin in the wrong way and God will turn you into crispy toast for having such lewd thoughts.

3)Build up of static electricity...ok, I tried this in the 5th grade. The library had thick lush carpet. I dragged my feet on it for almost 20 minutes straight and shocked the hell out of Todd Weber. He screamed like a girl and told on me...but he didn't shoot up in flames.

4)The "Wick Effect"...this is the most widely accepted scientific explanation. In 1999, the BBC TV show QED showed how SHC was really not such a mystery. They believed that body fat could indeed burn for a long time. So they did what any British scientist would do - they burned a pig! They took a pig, wrapped it up in a blanket (ha), put some petrol on it, put the pig in a room, and lit 'er up! The result? Tasty bacon on English muffins with tea in the morning.

5)Build up of methane gas...this theory was made popular by the renowned investigative TV show South Park. Here's an excerpt from one of their episodes where Kenny apparently spontaneously combusts:

Mayor: All right, people. Scientist Marsh and I have been working very hard on the problem of spontaneous combustion, and we have finally come up with a solution. Mr. Marsh?

Randy: The little boy combusted because he had a new girlfriend. It wasn't the girl that caused him to combust, it was the fact that Kenny did not want to pass gas in front of her. The methane gathers here in the bowel area where it causes pressure. Normally a person would expel this byproduct in the form of a pleasant fart. Should the gas not be expelled, the methane can build up and then ignite, leading to... disaster. Kenny combusted because he held his farts in for too long.

Townsfolk: You mean, all we have to do is fart and we won't explode?

Randy: Exactly. [after a while, a fart is heard, then more farts follow as the townsfolk let it rip]

Mayor: So, from this day forward, everyone in South Park will be required to fart on a regular basis to insure that nobody else spontaneously explodes.

So please, take spontaneous combustion prevention measures at regular intervals and whenever you deem neccessary.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

If that last one was true, more people would've fried to a crisp by now.

DEZMOND said...

yep, I've often read about the strange cases of spontaneous self burning or how do you call it... super scary...

Michael Offutt, Kaiju Smack Down Artist said...

I had a friend that thought shc was caused by not farting so he farted all the time. He probably got it from this South Park episode.

David P. King said...

Oh man ... that was hilarious (however said since people have died from this), but I will admit there was a time in my young life when I saw a special on this subject and feared that I would catch fire at any random moment. :)

Robin said...

So, the real answer is that they still don't know, right? The old lady didn't die of holding in her farts. Hahahaha.

M Pax said...

SP's explanations is the most reasonable. lol

I incorporated this into a short story, which I need to revise and polish.

Maurice Mitchell said...

That's hilarious. Didn't Mythbusters take this one on Jay?

Sheena-kay Graham said...

This was a good laugh.

Melanie Schulz said...

That's more than a little freaky, but I like your fart explanation. Guess the second helping of beans isn't always the best idea.

Rusty Webb said...

Good stuff. I've heard the wick idea before. Seems like I've heard human fat makes for great candles... and soap

jaybird said...

The whole concept has always been a bit dodgy in my mind; not sure what to make of it. That picture is pretty dang gross though.

Ah, the science of farts. My brother, in an effort to ensure his top spot as FAVORITE UNCLE EVER, actually conducted a flatulent experiment in order to prove (after much speculation) to all of his nieces, that yes, farts can actually be lit on fire.

farawayeyes said...

Thank you for this educational and informative post. SHC is something that has concerned me for a long time now and knowing that all I have to do is fart has taken a load of my, ah er, um mind. I certainly will spread this glad message to all those who are in close proximity to my person and then run for cover.

The Desert Rocks said...

Aack! You crack me up but thanks for the warning!

Julie Dao said...

HAHAHA! I have a feeling the world will be just a little bit stinkier now that everyone has read this post and is desperately trying not to self-combust.

Jay Noel said...

Alex: For sure. Especially the ladies.

Dez: I saw something on TV when I was younger. I had nightmares.

Michael: Great minds think alike!

David: I think what I saw was from that old tv show Unsolved Mysteries. It haunted me. The image of the guy washing dishes and then suddenly his arm is on fire freaked me out.

Robin: I think the jury is still out. Everybody should fart just to make sure.

Mary: I have to read that one.

Jay Noel said...

Maurice: Nope, Mythbusters have done similar stuff, like static shock and whatnot. There was a TLC special, though, a few years ago.

Sheena-kay: Glad I could make you smile!

Melanie: Just don't hold it in after the beans.

Rusty: I'm leaning towards the wick explanation too. It makes sense.

jaybird: I've seen that live too. Pretty sure that's a not so safe method of getting rid of butt hairs.

Jay Noel said...

faraway: So glad you enjoyed my public service announcement.

Eve: Speaking of crack...

Julie: Yes, safer but stinkier.

Emily R. King said...

You know, I watched a show on this once. I swear, this is real. I know that makes me weird, but I guess I think anything is possible!

Brinda said...

Maybe I am a sicko...fascinating. :)

nutschell said...

ah well now I dont feel so bad about letting one loose in the kitchen. haha.

Jay Noel said...

Emily: I think you're thinking about the one on TLC also. It was a long time ago, though.

Brinda: It is fascinating, isn't it? Not the farting part, of course.

Mr. Shife said...

It is bizarre that I mentioned spontaneous combustion on my latest blog update. Anyway, a very fascinating and unreal story. A lot of mysteries out there. I am 13 hours early but happy anniversary to you and your blog. Have a good one.

Phats said...

I was a little hesitant to read this with the disclaimer haha the picture at the end made me laugh though.

David List said...

Got to admit, the disclaimer hooked me. And I was totally thinking of the South Park episode before I got to that part.
Way to do your research!

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