Newsletter – Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Contents (Do you have ideas for future newsletters? Write me.)

  1. Spontaneous Human Combustion and Other Counter-intuitive Adventures
  2. Quote of the Month – from subscriber Bruce Preville

Spontaneous Human Combustion and Other Counter-intuitive Adventures

Several weeks ago I happened to tune into the Discovery Channel’s feature on “Spontaneous Human Combustion.” Now I’d never heard this term before (have I led a sheltered life?). Here were pictures of people who had been almost completely incinerated. Not even their bones or teeth remained! And yet the rooms in which they were found showed only relatively minor heat damage: Plastic appliances were melted, but wallpaper and wood furniture were left pretty much intact. Various theories were offered about how this had happened, the most fascinating of which was a theory that some yoga practices could unleash a powerful incendiary force that could burn up a person, leaving behind only their legs from the knees down.

When my husband got home I was beside myself. I had my own little theory–that aliens were going around vaporizing people with a heretofore unknown weapon– and getting away with murder! As a physicist I felt that I was uniquely qualified to recognize the effects of a tazor blast! (even though I’ve never met an alien)

Much to my relief, at the end of the show the true cause of this peculiar phenomenon was revealed. It is a simple process whereby a human being can burn like a candle, with the clothing acting as a wick for the fat, allowing a small and powerful flame to consume the body and leave the surroundings relatively unscathed. The culmination of this documentary was an experiment where they actually wrapped a dead pig in clothing and filmed it as it burned in a room for over 8 hours. The pig was consumed, except for the feet, and the room was just a little worse for wear. Now how many of us would believe such a thing was possible? As unintuitive as it may be, the video of the pig left little doubt that these people had not been the victims of spontaneous human combustion or an alien’s vengeance. They simply had burned like a candle.

A piece of paper thick enough to reach the sun

A sheet of ordinary paper is less than a 2/1000 of an inch thick. And yet if you folded a big piece of such paper in half over and over again only 50 times, the total thickness of that folded paper would reach over a quarter of the way from the earth to the sun!

Does this mathematical magic surprise you? Well, the total thickness of the stack doubles with each fold. So if you start with a piece of ordinary paper that is 0.0015 inches thick, the first fold gives you 0.0030″, the second fold results in 0.0060″, the third fold 0.0120″, then 0.0240″, and so on, fifty times, until you get a whopping 24 MILLION miles of paper thickness with the 50th fold. If you’ve got some time on your hands just keep on punching those keys on your calculator and figure it out for yourself.

How to make $1,000,000,000 starting with only a penny a day

This same kind of puzzle is often presented to school children in this form: Which would you prefer–a million dollars, or to get paid a salary that starts off at 1 penny a day, but doubles every day for a month? Most people’s first reaction is to take the $1M. However if you agree to get paid the penny salary, that doubles every day for a month. You’ll have over $11 TRILLION dollars by the end of the month!

Intuition is not always an accurate guide to “reality”

What is it about human intuition that makes these kinds of things so difficult to grasp? Sure, you can train your intuition to “know” the right answers to these kinds of puzzles. But even the most brilliant among you must admit that the results are a bit surprising at first glance.

If you really want to understand these and other curious phenomena, run out and buy a book called “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell. There’s not a darned thing in there about spontaneous human combustion. But it is an amazing book about how trends spread through viral marketing, how epidemics get started, how the famous theory of 6 degrees of separation works, and other highly non-intuitive discussions of how little things can make a big difference. (According to the theory of 6 degrees of separation, any two people are “connected” by at most 6 degrees of separation. In other words, if I want to get a message to George W. Bush, chances are I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows someone who knows George W. Oddly enough, this was the very example one friend of mine chose to use to disprove this theory in a bar about a week ago, and we happened to have sitting at our table someone who could pick up the phone and connect us with the president himself. Go figure!)

What do you assume is true that may not be true?

Once our eyes are opened to the highly non-linear and unpredictable nature of the world, we may begin to wonder what else we are misinterpreting which seems, on the surface, to be “obvious.” Several things come to mind, like the manner in which the Silicon Valley economy might recover from the current recession, or how I might find my next consulting gig, but I’d like to hear YOUR thoughts!

What seems “realistic” or “true” at first blush, but falls apart under scrutiny? Do you assume that the U.S. economy is a mirror of your local economy? Do you believe that the terrorist threat is over now that we have people inspecting shoes in airports? Have you decided that you are too old to start working on some dream that you’ve always held dear? Are you just expecting (hoping) that your company’s outlook will get better if you can just hold on long enough?

Once we look below the surface of our unexamined assumptions and beliefs, we have the opportunity to alter them. I, for one, am going to start looking for a job that pays a penny a day, with salary doubling every day for a month!

Quote of the Month (Contributed by Bruce Preville)

“From no more than dreams, determination, and the liberty to try, quite ordinary people consistently do extraordinary things.” –Dee Hock

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