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Myths and Legends

Urban legends Letters

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Death and Dying

Spontaneous Combustion

Brian J. Ford may well have an explanation for so-called spontaneous human combustion, the fierce burning reported when bodies catch fire (18 August, p 30). But what ignites the fire?

I have read of a reported instance involving a well-to-do lady walking elegantly down a street. The only explanation for combustion was that she had committed some dreadful sin, and this was the Lord's retribution.

A much more prosaic explanation seems likely. It was a warm summer's day and her silk clothing was crackling with static electricity. Even the most elegant of us sometimes emits bowel gases. A pocket of methane and a spark would be all that was needed. *****

Has anyone reported any occurrence of spontaneous animal combustion? If not, what makes humans so special?


In Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1852), the alcoholic rag-and-bone man Krook spontaneously combusts. The scene raised controversy among readers. In a preface to the second edition, Dickens defended his claim, citing two cases he claimed to know of. It has been speculated that his source was the 1763 book De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis by Jonas Dupont.


Ford speculated that acetone production resulting from the medical condition ketosis is responsible for causing the body to become inflammable. He marinated pork tissue in acetone then found that it could be made to burn fiercely. However, the acetone concentration in marinated tissue would be quite high. Even in fatal cases of ketoacidosis, acetone levels in blood are typically around 0.2 millimoles per litre (12 parts per million). Let Ford marinate his pork in this concentration of acetone and see if he can set it alight.

Disappearing Socks

With regard to Steve Field's letter concerning the possible quantum explanation for disappearing socks (23 June, p 31), this is in fact a biological phenomenon. Has he not noticed that metal coat hangers seem to mysteriously multiply? The answer is simple. Socks are a larval form of coat hanger.


I have a game I like to play with those who believe in conspiracy theories (20/27 December 2014, p 36). The basic idea is that believers in one conspiracy tend to believe in others as well. You can point out the contradictions simply by running two conspiracies together, and asking them how they make sense of that.

Many of those who think the Apollo moon landings were faked also believe that in 1947, an alien spacecraft capable of crossing light years of space crashed at Roswell, New Mexico and is in the hands of the US government.

But surely if the government has access to such powerful, advanced technology, then taking a few men across to a little rock that is just a hop, skip and jump away would be mere child's play by comparison? The Roswell crash and faked Apollo missions can't both be true.

But then, that is precisely what the government would want you to believe, isn't it?


Is belief in conspiracy theories due solely to human psychology and emotional reassurance, as Oliver and Wood say? They report more than half of people in the US believing in conspiracies. What are the comparable statistics for Europeans? It seems to me that many in the US believe in irrational things, such as creationism and alien abduction.

Might there be some cause specific to US culture – perhaps a "better safe than sorry" outlook? In an enormously powerful yet relatively young and insecure nation, might it seem safer to hedge your bets and believe in things that may not be true, rather than not to believe in something that – if it turned out to be true after all – could spell total disaster, such as alien conquest or the wrath of God?

What Is Most Harmful UL?

The African virgin cleansing myth. Too many believe that you can cure your HIV/AIDS by having sex with a virgin.

You can't get pregnant the first time. ...
Anything regarding sex - like you can't get pregnant standing up, etc

That's one of those myths that I really don't understand how people could possibly believe. Where is the logic in that? Ignorance and abstinence-only sex education.

That the world is a dangerous place, with pedophiles, serial killers, and terrorists around every corner. The world is falling apart and World War III is right around the corner. Thanks 24 hour sensationalist news cycle!

All those poor souls who have gone years without feeling the joy of cracking your knuckles out of fear of arthritis.

That low-fat foods are healthier than normal full-fat foods. (context: Most low-fat foods sub out fat in favor of equal or greater caloric amounts of sugar (often in the form of HFCS), not making the foods any more healthy). If perceived as 'healthier', people tend to consume more, thus leading to obesity and other weight-related problems.

Faith based healing (especially in Africa)

GMOs are bad. Drought and disease resistance crops could potentially do so much good in developing nations but oh no let's protest something we don't understand...

Vaccines cause autism.

That you can 'pray away the gay'. There are camps, especially in the bible belt, where ashamed parents send their kids for 'gay conversion therapy'.

I would create a "pray away the gay" camp that would secretly be a front for a camp that taught gay kids to act straight while teaching them that their gayness doesn't make them a freak. Parents would be satisfied with their kids being straight, kids would be satisfied with knowing they're not abominations.

The idea that humans only use 7% of their brains. Spawned a lot of shitty damaging movies
The myth is 10%
No he's saying women only use 7.7% of their brains, while men use 10%

Marijuanna is a dangerous drug, we should ruin people's lives if they are caught with this plant...

Richard Gere and the gerbil
But that only damaged his reputation. It's provided endless entertainment for the rest of us.

When proposing you don't have to give a ring worth 2 months wages. It's just a marketing scheme.

Iraq having WMD. Trillions of dollars and millions of lives later, we have IS, overly militarized police, several countries in chaos, and thousands of men, women, and children with PTSD.


Guns dont kill People, people do! Because it lets ppl still buy guns so people with guns kill people

Agreed, such a shame so many parents needlessly subject their kids to this nonsense.
As a kid who was subjected to this nonsense 1. I don't remember it happening my dick is very easy 3. My dick doesn't look like a thumb in a meaty turtleneck. I'm pretty glad it happened tbh.