Last month when British papers reported on the “first Irish case of death” by spontaneous human combustion—going up in flames with no apparent cause—many eyebrows were raised in the scientific regions of the Internet. Apparently the coroner in the case had never heard of the “wick effect,” in which a flaming object like a cigarette dropped on a sleeping person can slowly melt all their (quite flammable) fat until it leaks out and saturates the body, forming, in effect, a human candle or torch. It’s what forensic scientists think happens in cases of so-called “spontaneous” human combustion.
Blogger Jennifer Ouellette, it turns out, is a font of knowledge on the wick effect and the various other explanations people have come up with over the years for the gruesome discovery of a pair of legs leaning against a chair full of ash and grease. Dickens, along with the rest of the Victorians, thought it happened because of heavy drinking. But these explanations really take the cake:
A man named John Heymer wrote a book called The Entrancing Flame in 1996, in which he advanced his hypothesis that SHC victims are loners who fall into a strange kind of trance that triggers a chain reaction of “mitochrondrial explosions” by “freeing hydrogen and oxygen within the body.” That hypothesis might make sense if hydrogen and oxygen actually existed in gas form inside a mitochrondrial cell, but they don’t — and a good thing, too, otherwise the very act of inhaling could cause spontaneous ignition.
Even more far-fetched is the take of a man named Larry Arnold, who thinks that occasionally human cells get hit by a mysterious particle — he calls it a “pyrotron” — that causes a nuclear chain reaction inside the body. We give Arnold points for creativity and coming with a really cool moniker for his imaginary new particle.
Image courtesy of puzzledmonkey / flickr