Spontaneous Human Combustion 4/7/22

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

When I was young, maybe in the mid or late ‘70’s I guess, there was a wild story going around that seemed to scare a lot of people, specifically, spontaneous human combustion.  Conspiracy rags published pictures of ash vaguely in the shape of people on patio recliners, the story being “I turned around, heard an odd sound, felt a flash of heat and Bernard just burned up!”  The story was just odd enough to spark the imagination of people who, let’s be honest, are more likely to believe what is “fun” than seek the truth.  Scientists tried to reason it out, pointing out that it would take approximately fifty million (literally, as I just did the calculation) calories just to vaporize the water in the average human body, or fifty thousand kilocalories (or “food calories”). 

The amazing thing is that the recliner itself never burned, just the person.  Well, of course this was true.  People wanted to keep the recliner after washing the ashes they put in it for the photograph off.  Is it possible for a person to burn completely without burning the recliner?  Yes, I suppose it’s a matter of kinetics.  It takes time for fire to ignite, so much like opening an oven and feeling that burst of heat without actually burning yourself, I guess it’s possible to have a flame that is so hot and so rapid that the cushions remained unharmed.  But let’s be honest; it’s more likely that somebody is perpetrating a hoax and simply shaping ashes on the cushion to resemble poor Bernard.  But, honestly, by what mechanism is this even possible? 

People do enjoy believing the unbelievable if it’s sexy enough.  I’ve been the target of many sex scandals throughout my career, and my regular readers know that my goal in these blogs is to be as honest as possible.  There is no reason, at this point, to hide anything; I have nothing to gain by doing so.  As such, when I tell you, truthfully, that none of these rumors had merit, I hope my regular readers believe me.  And yet, I can guarantee you that, just reading that I’ve had these rumors about me going around, there are those who now believe, emphatically, that I did, indeed, have sex with my students.  I hypothesize that the reason these readers now believe that I did is because it’s more fun to believe that I was a filthy old professor taking advantage of my students, than it is to believe that I actually kept my hands to myself.

But what happens to these stories?  I was reminded of the spontaneous combustion story because it was featured on one of the episodes of an old television “horror” series from the ‘70’s.  It was not a good series (as there were some), but it was schlocky and fun enough that I purchased the series.  Well, it only survived a single season, so it wasn’t expensive, but sure enough, there’s the spontaneous human combustion.

Fun stories have been with humans throughout our history.  The vampire legend arose, and was believed to be true, across European nations almost simultaneously, ranging from traditional vampires drinking blood to being able to curse people with little more than a glance.  UFO’s were popular for a long time, which also gave rise to the infamous Area 51, which apparently is right next door to Area 52 where the alien craft is actually being kept.  Drinking pop while eating the popping candy will surely turn you into a walking bomb.  Science is no different.  The “phlogiston” hypothesis was popular for many years as this elusive material was believed to hold atoms together.  The proverbial “polywater” from the sixties when some chemists believe that water could self-polymerize is another, but I think these scientists were also experimenting with tobacco alternatives for smoking.  Cold fusion cost two well-respected American scientists their reputations and careers, and yet it continued to be studied in Japan for many years.  People who read my blogs regularly will not be surprised when I say that I believe the “dark matter” is the current sexy rumor to take hold in the sciences.  I found this particularly amusing because I worked with a physicist who opened up (and ended) her quantum mechanics class with a problem that proved that an invisible form of matter permeating all space is impossible according to quantum theory, and yet she, too, towed the dark matter line.

I really don’t intend to lambaste these rumors and stories.  The reality is that they make life a little more fun and interesting.  And yet, I do believe that we have to be a little bit careful about how we allow them to affect our lives and vision of the world.  Heck, I still like to believe that it’s possible for me to find love, but we all know that that will never happen. 


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