Spontaneous Human Combustion

The alleged SHC victims is almost always alone, even in fictional accounts like this one of Dickens'. How come?

West Galway coroner Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin has ruled the death of a pensioner to be Spontaneous Human Combustion. This follows his finding of a 2009 murder-suicide to be the action of “shape-shifting beings of intelligent energy”, his 2005 decision that a local man’s disappearance was caused by him being “simply pulled down into Hell”, and his opinion that the 1998 death of a lorry driver was caused by something that “mortal man wots naught therof”.

OK I made those up, but they really are no more silly than a verdict of spontaneous human combustion, a thing not recognised by science to actually f***ing exist. A coroner has entered, as the official cause of death, that a person… burst into flames.

Let’s get this clear:

Spontaneous combustion is a real – and quite ordinary – thing. It simply means that substances can catch light without any flame being introduced. This can happen in a variety of ways, heat generated by decomposition in compost heaps being a common example.

Human combustion is a real thing too. Human bodies can burn; we cremate them all the time. Though we aren’t exactly highly inflammable, it doesn’t take a terribly big fire to entirely consume a body. Our Neolithic ancestors would do it with simple pyres of wood.

Spontaneous human combustion is when a human bursts into flame without any external cause, and this… just doesn’t happen. It’s been a thing of legend for some time, and has been popularised in fiction – most significantly, Charles DickensBleak House. The theory, perhaps “legend” would be a better word, is that some strange chemical change in the body causes it to catch light all by itself. Nobody has ever managed to recreate such a chemical reaction though.

What get labelled ‘spontaneous’ human combustion are cases where a body is found mostly or partially burned away without being on a pyre of any kind. It’s shocking, but should we really be surprised? We are partly inflammable bodies wrapped in often quite inflammable clothing. It’s perhaps surprising that we don’t catch fire more often.

There is no reason to believe that there was anything spontaneous about these conflagrations. Such bodies are often found in front of an open fire, very often the victim is a smoker. (It’s perhaps telling that reports of SHC begin only after the introduction of tobacco.) To my knowledge there has never been a case where an external source of ignition could be ruled out. Certainly not this one, where the victim was found near both matches and an open fire. (Investigators merely said that the fire did not spread from the hearth.)

Another telling thing that all these cases have in common: The victims are alone. Usually too they are very old or otherwise incapacitated (the victim in this case had type 2 diabetes, so coma is a possibility), and it seems likely that in many of these cases they are dead before the fire starts. Something sets their clothing (or the chair they are in) alight; perhaps the cigarette they were smoking, perhaps the heat of the open fire. Normally when things start to smoulder we react instinctively and quickly, but if the victim is dead or deeply unconscious and alone there is a small but real chance that smouldering can break into fire. It seems clothing fires can sometimes reach sufficient temperature to make the body’s own fats start to burn, whereupon it will to a greater or lesser extent consume itself. Animal fats make excellent fuels.

Why doesn’t the house burn down? Often it does, and so becomes another ordinary house fire caused by another ordinary stray cigarette. Just occasionally though the victim isn’t near anything the fire can spread to, and you get horrifying scenes like this.

Pathologist Professor Grace Callagy made the correct call – it was impossible to say the exact cause of death because too much of the body had been consumed by fire. We simply don’t know if he was already dead when the burning started. So for the coroner to return “spontaneous human combustion” as cause of death is quite simply ludicrous.

Prepared to be laughed at, fellow Galwegians. For this makes us look like a bunch of nineteenth-century bog goblins.

The Golden Age of Gold

Entrance stone with megalithic art.

At the National Museum today, where I haven’t been since I was twelve. But then, I was pretty much twelve again when I walked through the door. Caveman stuff!

Our whole visit went on simply taking in the main hall on the ground floor, which brings you from the Palaeolithic (beginning 3-400,000 years ago), to the end of the bronze age (about 500 BC). Quite a span – but actually the palaeolithic is a bit of a cheat. It’s not thought that people actually lived in Ireland then. This is the era when tools were no more than rocks broken to have sharp edges. At that level of technology people probably didn’t have clothes, so it seems highly unlikely that they could have survived here during an ice age… Nevertheless we have a couple of what appear to be palaeolithic stone tools. It’s just that we’re not sure how they got there. Theories range from them being carried here by receding glaciers, to being carried here by mischievous archaeologists. Well the display card didn’t actually say that, but I couldn’t help feeling it was the subtext.

From this perhaps weak beginning we skip straight to the action – nearly half a million years later. Things begin to get going around 7,000 years ago with the Mesolithic, when they finally had the idea of tying rocks to sticks. If you don’t think that’s a big difference, compare the idea of trying to chop down a tree with an axe to the idea of trying to chop down a tree with an axehead. I shouldn’t talk as if they just suddenly thought of it though. It takes tools to make tools; the technology evolved in tiny gradations until a breakthrough was possible.

But these people were still nomads. It was the Neolithic that brought farming to Ireland, five or six thousand years ago, and with that the first lasting buildings, the great megalithic monuments like Newgrange, apparently part of an extraordinary culture that seems to have blossomed throughout north-western Europe for, well, for a few thousand years, and about which we now know almost nothing.

Now the stone tools were different. They were… beautiful. Some smooth, some ornately carved. These people had brought the art of banging rocks together to its apotheosis. One shocking example of their technological confidence was the Lurgan boat, the mother of dugout canoes. It’s basically a fifty-foot oak cut down, split, and hollowed out. Looked to have room for thirty people or more, a whole community.

But then bronze. The technological transition never seemed as dramatic to me as when I saw the new bronze swords and spearheads next to the old stone knives and axes. It must have been on a par with the invention of gunpowder. But it meant huge social change too. An isolated community can fashion stone tools. Bronze is made from raw materials you have to trade for.

And with this new metallurgy, gold. What ancient Irish smiths did with gold is nobody’s business. Work that could have been buried with Pharaohs has been dug out of bogs. Virtually all of it jewellery – after all, what else useful can you make from the stuff? The weird thing perhaps is that there were so few designs, speaking of a pretty unified culture. Just torcs, collars, clothing fasteners, bracelets, boss-headed “sunflower” pins and what are still known as “boxes”, though by current theory these were actually inserted in pierced ears much like the plates worn by some peoples in Africa. Except, you know, made out of gold. They were hollow and contained beads so that they’d rattle, which must have provided a constant pleasant reminder of just how rich you were. An illustration of an ancient leader decked out in all this stuff gave the distinct impression that he must have clanked like a Transformer.

And all this before history even started. Will definitely have to go back.

How To Play With Windows 8

Windows 3.0, released in 1990
Lovely, isn't it? Wait, wrong picture

So, you want to have a go on Windows 8? It’s easy enough, but there are a few things you must bear in mind first:

  • Only do this if you have a spare computer to try it on, or are familiar with setting up a dual-boot system. If you install it as an upgrade on your working computer there will be no way back afterwards short of completely re-installing your old version of Windows. And all your software. Assuming you can even find all those discs. And remember all those hundreds of settings. Basically it’s a world of pain and you don’t want to go there.
  • You’ll need at least a 1GHz processor, 1GB RAM, 16GB of free hard drive space (20GB for the 64-bit version), and a DVD burner.
  • You indemnify me for anything that can, and probably will, go wrong. Windows 8 is Not Ready For Prime Time, and the management is not responsible for lost data or computers exploding in sprays of white-hot metal.

OK, You Ready? 

(If you’re starting with an empty hard disk, or one you are OK about permanently obliterating, you can skip the first two steps. Otherwise, skip nothin‘.)

  1. First, back up any important data on the hard drive you’re partitioning. (If you don’t know what partitioning a drive is you are in too deep and should back out now…) If it also has your working Windows installation it would be a very good idea to image the whole drive, then if everything goes horribly wrong you have a good chance of easy recovery. (Macrium Reflect is a free yet reliable way to image drives.)
  2. In your spare drive space, make as large a partition as you can afford – it must be 16GB at least. It should be a primary as opposed to a logical or extended partition.
  3. Next, download the Windows 8 Developer Preview, choosing the right version for your hardware. (If you aren’t sure which is the right version then, again, you shouldn’t be trying this.)
  4. Once downloaded, burn it to a DVD. (If you try to mount and run the ISO image it will only offer you the option to install to your C drive, which you don’t want.) Label the DVD “Deadly Space Virus”. Or, you know, whatever you like.
  5. Boot from the DVD. (Just possibly, you may need to change your BIOS settings to allow that.) You’ll be offered a nicer-looking version of the usual Windows install dialogue. Go through it, selecting your options with great care.
  6. Take PARTICULAR care when you are asked which partition to install Windows 8 to. Make sure it’s the one you just created. One error here, and you return Earth to the stone age. Well all right, you destroy your existing Windows install and/or all your data. Which is bad enough.
  7. Once you pass this point, things go remarkably fast for a Windows installation. When it’s finished, you’ll be greeted with Windows 8. It’s quite pretty. You’re not finished.
  8. Get online. You may have a problem with this if the Developer Preview doesn’t happen to contain all the right drivers for your hardware, but you will probably find that an Ethernet connection to a router will work. Or if you have a 3G dongle there should be no problem. Once online, get all the Windows 8 updates. (Users of some earlier Windows versions may have trouble finding Windows Update, it’s: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/Windows Update. These downloads will make Windows 8 look and act a lot more polished.
  9. Simple! Oh wait, one other thing…
  10. If your other operating system is XP, you’re going to discover that you can’t boot back into it now. Bummer. This is because Windows 8 introduces a new bootloader that’s not compatible. To get around this, set XP as the default operating system. Go to: Control Panel/All Control Panel Items/System, click “Advanced System Settings” and then “Start Up And Recovery Settings”. Here you can change the default to “Earlier Version of Windows”, after which you’ll be faced with an option screen when you boot. Phew.

So, could this be the answer to iPad and Android? Have at it.