Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Feasible flames

A mystery that has persisted for more than 500 years has seemingly been solved by British professor and prolific author Brian J. Ford. Reports of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) span the centuries, from Polonius Vortius in 15th c. Italy to Michael Faherty (Micheál Ó Fátharta) in 21st c. Ireland (above is what was left of Pennsylvania resident Helen Conway in 1964). Ford describes what happens to the victims in these baffling cases: “One minute they may be relaxing in a chair, the next they erupt into a fireball. Jets of blue fire shoot from their bodies like flames from a blowtorch, and within half an hour they are reduced to a pile of ash. Typically, the legs remain unscathed sticking out grotesquely from the smoking cinders. Nearby objects – a pile of newspapers on the armrest, for example – are untouched.” SHC has long been associated with alcoholism and more recently been attributed to London coroner Gavin Thurston's theory of the "wick effect" (see article here). Ford has shown that pig [substituted for human] fat will not combust at room temperature, even when marinated in alcohol (though alcohol is not normally present in our tissues). It will, however, combust in the presence of acetone - a highly flammable chemical that is found in increased concentration in the bodies of alcoholics, diabetics, and those on a low-carb diet. Ford describes his experiment and the result: “So we marinated pork tissue in acetone, rather than ethanol. This was used to make scale models of humans, which we clothed and set alight. They burned to ash within half an hour. For the first time a feasible cause of human combustion has been experimentally demonstrated."

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