Saturday, September 7, 2013

Spontaneous human combustion explained?

The Victorians were particularly excited by "spontaneous combustion." Could a man really self-ignite? Charles Dickens believed so. In "Bleak House," he turned the aptly named Mr. Krook into a pile of ashes on the floor: a "smouldering, suffocating vapor in the room, and a dark, greasy coating on the walls and ceiling."

Forced to defend himself against charges of sensationalism, Dickens pointed to several well-known cases, including that of Countess Cornelia Di Bandi of Cesena, Italy. The Countess had gone to bed on the night of April 4, 1731, a healthy 62-year-old woman. In the morning all that remained of her was a circle of ashes, three fingers and her legs from the knees down.

Dickens defied his critics to come up with a scientific explanation that could account for such mysterious deaths. His challenge remained unanswered for the next 160 years. In fact, the latest recorded case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) happened in February this year, when authorities in Oklahoma discovered the charred corpse of Danny Vanzandt inside his otherwise pristine house.

But scientists have not been idle. Now, finally, it appears that the secret behind SHC has been unlocked. Last year, Brian J. Ford, a research biologist and author based at Cambridge University, set up a series of experiments using belly pork soaked in highly flammable acetone. The purpose was to mimic a dangerous condition called ketosis, when the liver produces toxic levels of ketones, which contain acetone.

According to Prof. Ford, the tiniest spark was sufficient: The pork mannequins burned to ash within half an hour. "The remains—a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs—were exactly like the photographs of human victims."