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Spontaneous Human Combustion: How It Works

September 26, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

“Terrifying, isn’t it? To imagine that you could be sitting in your favorite easy chair, happily reading UNIX in a Nutshell, and then your body just COMBUSTS—spontaneously—and you’re a pile of ashes…

It’s frightening at first blush. But don’t get too upset. Spontaneous human combustion is probably not real. Yes, approximately 200 reports of such have occurred in the past 300 years. But in 1998, scientists in U.K. came up with a more plausible explanation: the “wick effect.”

Come to think of it, the idea that your body could emulate a candle wick is not really comforting, either. It still reduces your humanness to pile of charcoal in short order. And just to make it a little more gruesome, your arms and legs might be left intact. But at least there is some logic behind the wick effect…

The theory behind the wick effect is that the spark (for a human, it might be a burning cigarette or a spark from a fireplace) burns through clothing, then splits the skin enough to access subcutaneous fat. Most victims are alone and presumed to have fallen asleep so they don’t immediately notice the spark. The fat is then absorbed into the clothing and behaves like a candle wick, fueling the flames until no fat is left.”

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