All posts by Daryl Ilbury

Daryl Ilbury is a former multi award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.

Burn, Baby, Burn! The truth about Spontaneous Human Combustion

mainImageHere at Guru, we have a burning passion for straight-talking science. And there’s no one more straight-talking than our Sceptic Guru, Daryl Ilbury. Join him as he explores the world of spontaneous human combustion, and discovers there’s some truth in the old adage ‘if you can’t stand the heat, keep away from the fire…’

“With the fire burning in his loins, Eduardo grasped Elizabeth, and passionately crushed himself against her heaving bosom”. This may sound like a line from a trashy romance novel – and that’s possibly because it is. Of course, it’s purely metaphorical: if Eduardo’s loins were indeed ablaze, I doubt he’d have anything remotely passionate on his mind. The only vaguely scientific explanation for the burning sensation in Eduardo’s loins is something a shot of penicillin could have sorted out. Enough said.

A burning sensation in the body is nothing new. It’s simply a way we describe a localised area of pain or discomfort – ‘heartburn’ being a classic example (even if it’s nowhere near the heart). However, the idea that the human body can somehow just burst into flame is nonsense. Of course, this doesn’t stop people peddling it as real – and there’s even a term that disciples of the mysterious and unexplained use to describe it: spontaneous human combustion, or SHC. It sounds scientific, but it isn’t. History is dotted with stories that have been held up by believers as evidence of SHC. As recently as 2010, a 76-year-old Irishman called Michael Faherty was found burned to death under what were termed ‘mysterious circumstances’. In fact, the coroner, Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, could find no adequate explanation for his death. However, the fact that his burned body was found next to an open fire may hold some clues…

SHC: all smoke and mirrors?

When was the last time you were watching Strictly Come Dancing and your beloved Aunt Milly suddenly burst into flames, leaving a nasty burn mark on your faux leather sofa? Can you ever remember standing in a supermarket queue with a cabbage in your hand only to watch smoke start to rise from the shop assistant’s ears before seeing her doused with water by a passing colleague?

Exactly. Incidences of supposed SHC invariably involve elderly people living alone – people more likely to suffer heart attacks or display absentminded behaviour, like sitting too close to heat sources. They are also more likely to be immobile due to ill health and therefore be unable to escape should their clothes catch fire.

All it takes in such cases is a heart attack, a dropped cigarette, or a nylon nightgown too close to an electric heater, and a person can burn to death. Such deaths are normally termed ‘unsolved deaths by fire’, even if no obvious cause can be found.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what this means: even if it had been destroyed in the ensuing blaze and was never found, an external cause is always considered the most likely. That’s because an internal cause is virtually unimaginable. And yet the idea that someone can spontaneously burst into flame because of a fire that started from inside them is a central element to SHC.

Money to burn

The reason why spontaneous combustion doesn’t happen can be explained using an experiment that was part of my repertoire when I used to present science shows – lighting a banknote and watching it burn, without it actually burning. Such an experiment can be done by soaking a banknote in a mixture of clear alcohol and water and then lighting it (don’t try this at home, kids). It is the alcohol that burns, not the money – the reason being that the money, kept cool by the water, doesn’t get hot enough to burn.

The human body, as any student of biology will tell you, is mainly made of water, so it could never get hot enough to just start burning. This doesn’t mean the human body can’t be burnt – cremation really happens, after all. It just means that very high external temperatures are needed to raise the body temperature enough for it to start burning – and this explains why a crematorium needs to operate at between 870 and 1000 degrees Celsius.

Wax attack

This is where our story gets a little icky (or should I say ‘wicky’). Once a body starts burning, it provides its own fuel: human fat. Human fat contains a large amount of energy by virtue of it containing long hydrocarbon chains (chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms sprouting from them). As a result, it burns like the wax of a candle. Should someone start burning, their fat can melt and seep into their clothing, which then acts like a candlewick (morbidly enough, it’s a phenomenon called ‘the wick effect’). So, should someone start burning from the outside, nature will keep them ablaze. (Well what were you expecting from a story about spontaneous combustion? Pictures of puppies and butterflies?)

However, wherever science is ignored, pseudoscience abounds. And so it is that accounts of spontaneous human combustion still get enthusiastically bandied about on websites dedicated to the paranormal – my personal favourite being Defenceless village incinerated by UFOs.

If, you wish to delve further into these stories in the pursuit of dismissing pseudoscience (why else?!), perhaps you should read Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion,by Larry E. Arnold, the self-proclaimed “world’s foremost expert on exploding people”.

He used to be a bus driver, so I guess he knows what he’s talking about.

Article by Daryl Ilbury

May 20, 2015

Daryl Ilbury is a former multi award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.


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What’s the truth about Dr Aslan’s GH3 anti-ageing complex?

“What’s your take on Dr. Aslan’s GH3 complex? I believe it was used as an alternative to Valium, Zoloft, etc. It was finally declared a food supplement instead of a drug, since it contains 15% procaine.”
Asked by Rich Ranspot via email

Pill tablet by @Doug88888, on FlickrIf Sergey Brin and Larry Page really wanted to invent a feature that would do the world some good, it would be a ringing warning bell sound effect that was heard every time you typed in a word or phrase that found websites that claimed “miracle cure” or “anti-ageing”. Any website that sells GH3 will quite possible use such words.  Let’s make something quite clear: the ageing process is irrevocable and ultimately fatal. It cannot be stopped and it certainly cannot be reversed, and any organisation that claims as such is lying to you.

Certain creams may – and here’s the phrase that’s missing in most claims for such ‘miracle cures’ – “reduce the appearance of ageing”, by moisturising the skin, but that’s about it. The catchy-sounding GH3 (or to use it’s creamier marketing name ‘Gerovital’) is a preparation that is better known to scientists as procain hydrochloride. It sounds pretty dangerous and, to a degree, it is. Procain is an anaesthetic normally wielded by your friendly dentist (an unfriendly dentist would rip out your molars without using anaesthetic). Injected as a solution, procain can be your best friend when you have someone prodding around in your mouth with sharp instruments. However, according to WebMD, it’s not all that easily absorbed if you take it orally in tablet form. GH3 is available in tablet form.

It is true there have been some geriatric studies that suggest that patients who had been given doses of procain seem to show some degree of general improvement, but a number of double-blind studies have shown that among hospitalised geriatric patients with organic symptoms, Gerovital H3 had no ameliorative effect on either psychologic or physiologic functioning.

Personally I wouldn’t give GH3 to my neighbour’s dog – and he barks all night!

Disclaimer: Please note that all Guru website and magazine content is intended for educational and entertainment purposes, and should not be used to base clinical and health decisions. Please always consult a qualified practitioner. Opinions from individual contributors do not necessarily reflect those of Guru Magazine Ltd.

Article by Daryl Ilbury

February 5, 2013

Daryl Ilbury is a former multi award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.


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Should an atheist parent lie about Santa?

Why does my atheist brother-in-law complain when his son refuses to believe in Father Christmas?

Asked by @Christomill via twitter

Untitled by theloushe, on FlickrI have given this much thought because there are three ways of approaching the issue of challenging personal beliefs: by tip-toeing daintily through the tulips, bashing through the obstruction with a front-end loader, or my personal favourite – obliterating the tulips with the front-end loader. I’m going to have to take the first route, because ideally as a science journalist I’d need to interview all parties before throwing any light on the matter; and besides, there are some sensitive issues at stake here.

Firstly, I have to assume that your atheist brother-in-law doesn’t believe in Father Christmas either. That makes sense because the character doesn’t exist outside of folklore, and even then, in such apparent diverse forms as to render reports of him untenable as proof. Besides, in order to deliver as many presents as needed in a single night (even to only the good children), would require Father Christmas (and his reindeer) to do some interesting things with the laws of physics (see The Physics of Santa)

Secondly, I also have to assume that because the son has been brought up in a home where at least one the parents is an atheist, he has been encouraged to employ critical reasoning. He has therefore come to the logical conclusion that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. This means that – unlike his peers who have been encouraged to believe in nonsense – he won’t grow up to believe in horoscopes and homeopathy.

The logical answer to your question is therefore simple… it’s love (altogether now, 1…2…3…”aaaah!”) I can imagine that your brother-in-law doesn’t want to risk his son being prejudiced by his peers (and their judgemental parents) by running around and telling everyone that Father Christmas doesn’t exist.

Answered by Daryl Ilbury

Article by Daryl Ilbury

January 7, 2013

Daryl Ilbury is a former multi award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.


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Why can’t women read maps? Why can’t men shop?

Q: Why can’t men wring out dishcloths? I know all about why women can’t read maps and why men can’t shop (worried about my husband who loves shopping) and the fact that men can’t say sorry but … dishcloths is a burning question for me along with … why are the ladies loos always further away from the bar, hotel lounge (whatever) than the men’s?

Sent by Gwen Rhys via Email

Unfortunately you have fallen into the trap of selecting evidence to confirm the modern equivalent of old wives tales. In scientific research it’s called confirmation bias and is one of the pillars of dodgy science. Claiming that ‘women can’t read maps’ or that ‘men can’t shop’ is not only scientifically inaccurate, it is also blatantly sexist. Such stories are generally propagated in the popular media and are supposedly underpinned by poor interpretation of science, such as (in these cases) the concept of sex-determined left/right hemisphere dominance in the brain, and the traditional role of women as gatherers (while the men hunted) in the early days of homo sapiens. If I were to disprove any of your statements as scientific fact, all I’d have to do is find evidence that contradicts your claims. Your claim that your husband loves shopping is such an example, ergo your statement is scientifically unsound.

Answered by Daryl Ilbury

Like what Daryl has to say? Daryl is our Sceptic Guru and in Issue Ten (released 1st Feb 2013) he will be donning his toga and presenting some handy Latin terms to dazzle your friends and derail false arguments.

Article by Daryl Ilbury

December 5, 2012

Daryl Ilbury is a former multi award-winning broadcaster, now a science journalist and op-ed columnist based in South Africa. He has a Masters degree in Science Journalism from City University, London. You can see an archive of his work on his website www.darylilbury.com or follow him on Twitter at @darylilbury.


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