Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Rise of the Phoenix, a case of spontaneous combustion?

On Sept 23, 2011, a man burned to death in his home, his death ruled as spontaneous combustion.

We've all heard the tales, the most famous, a fictional story by Charles Dickens when he killed off an alcoholic character in such a manner in his book "Bleak House." The character, named Krook, was an alcoholic, following the belief at the time that spontaneous human combustion was caused by excessive amounts of alcohol in the body. However, one of the first known accounts of spontaneous combustion dates back farther back to 1663 by a Thomas Bartholin who described a woman in Paris as she "went up in ashes and smoke" while she was sleeping, the straw mattress unmarred by the fire. And then in 1763, a collection of spontaneous combustion cases--"De Incendiis Coporis Humani Spontaneis"--was published.

There are several popular theories:

1. a fire is sparked when methane builds up in the intestines and is ignited by enzymes

If this was true, victims would suffer greater damage to their internal organs. However, from the cases where the body wasn't completely charred, the evidence suggests the opposite.

2. a fire results as a buildup of static electricity inside the body
3. from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body
4. one individual has claimed that it is the work of a particle called a pyroton, which he says interacts with cells to create a mini-explosion.

No evidence has been found to prove the existence of these.

Although many attribute such ideas of spontaneous human combustion to the paranormal, in 1998, forensic scientists believed they found a possible explanation as they tested the "wick" effect.

Using a dead pig, wrapped in cloth, they tested the idea that a body can be devoured by flames from its own body fat. Scientists found that the clothes soaked up the melted fat, acting like the wick of a candle, leaving all surrounding materials unharmed, such as the case in 1951 of Mary Reeser who is suspected to have burned to death after taking sleeping pills while smoking, causing her body to burn from within. Another example, in 1966, a body of a 92-year-old was discovered. while only his leg and slippered foot was found, the rest of his body had been burned to ashes. A hole in his bathroom floor was the only evidence of the fire that had killed him, everything else untouched.

In this case of the man's death on Sept 23rd, forensics found that the fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where the badly burned body was discovered was not the cause of death. Neither was there any trace of an accelerant found, which could have suggested foul play. The only damage was to the body and the ceiling above him and floor underneath.

In mythology, we hear about a creature that burns up, much like in these cases of spontaneous human combustion. That creature is the phoenix, a mythical bird that, at the end of a 500 to 1000 year life-cycle, goes up in flame and a new phoenix (often as an egg) is reincarnated as an egg, born from the ashes.

Could spontaneous combustion be an explanation for such tales of a phoenix? What do you think?

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