Archive for November 2018

Patent Drawing for J. G. Krichbaum's Device for Indicating Life in Buried Persons

The fact and fiction of dead ringers

Among the many urban myths circulating on the internet is a document called “Life in the 1500s” that began as an anonymous email message and has since found its way onto countless websites that took it as legitimate history. Among other things, this list of alleged facts about Renaissance life purports to give the origins of numerous English expressions, such as “raining cats and dogs,” “chew the fat,” and “dead ringer.” Unfortunately, although there are a few kernels of truth in the message, most of it is completely false. Whether it was an intentional hoax or merely the product of someone with a good imagination and poor research skills, it has misled a lot of people into mistaken etymological beliefs.

Take, for example, the claim that in the 1500s, people were often unintentionally buried alive—as evidenced by scratch marks on the insides of coffins that were later exhumed for some reason. On hearing such stories, public fear of being buried alive allegedly resulted in a new method of burial, in which a string was tied to the wrist of the departed and fed through a hole in the coffin all the way to the surface, where it attached to a bell. Were the person to awaken, the slightest arm movement would ring the bell, alerting someone to dig them up. Hence—so the tale goes—the origin of the expressions “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer.”

That’s a lovely and plausible-sounding story, but it happens to be untrue. The expressions “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” had entirely different origins (about which more in a moment). And the whole business of coffins being designed with warning bells? That was certainly not part of life in the 1500s. Not at all. Not even close. It didn’t happen until the 1800s.

The Living Dead

Even today, the criteria for determining that someone is dead are not entirely unambiguous. If someone is missing a heart or brain, the diagnosis is relatively straightforward. But there are any number of circumstances under which someone’s pulse and breathing may be indiscernible—or even entirely absent—and yet death has not occurred. Even the absence of brain waves is not always an uncontroversial sign of death. A variety of medical conditions, or perhaps even a deep trance, can render someone cold, motionless, and unresponsive for some period of time. Occasionally you may see stories in the news about people who wake up in a body bag, a morgue, or even a funeral parlor, having been incorrectly pronounced dead. It doesn’t happen often, but it happens.

A few centuries ago, when medical science was much less advanced than it is today, this sort of thing happened considerably more often. History is littered with stories of such occurrences—sometimes with happy endings, but usually not. There have even been cases where coffins were found to have scratch marks inside, and though this is not necessarily proof that the person was buried alive, that surely did happen from time to time, especially considering that in the days before embalming became common, burials tended to happen quite soon after death.

During the Victorian age (roughly the second half of the 19th century), there was, for whatever reason, an unusual amount of public anxiety about the possibility of being buried alive—in England, continental Europe, and even the United States. Edgar Allan Poe tapped into (and exacerbated) this anxiety with a few of his short stories: “The Black Cat” in 1843, “The Cask of Amontillado” in 1846, and “The Premature Burial” in 1850.

Give Me a Sign

Such anxiety is not unique to that time period, but that was when a flurry of inventors set out to solve the problem. Patent records from the period show many designs for so-called safety coffins. Some designs merely contained a signaling apparatus of some kind—and yes, a few of them actually did use a bell with a string fed through a tube into the coffin. Other designs were more elaborate, with motion from the body raising a flag, sending a telegraphic signal, or even shooting off fireworks. There were also some coffins with escape hatches or spring-loaded release mechanisms, though the latter would have been useful only before burial.

A few of the later designs included air inlets that would open if, and only if, the alarm was actually triggered. This was—excuse the expression—a fatal flaw. A full coffin holds very little air; without even taking into account the exertion of calling out for help or pushing on the lid, an average (healthy) person would pass out within an hour or two after a coffin was sealed, and expire shortly thereafter. However, that detail was apparently a moot point. Although some of the safety coffins were in fact manufactured and sold, there is no record from that time period of anyone having been buried in one. And thus, there are also no records of one of these inventions actually saving someone’s life. But still the meme persists. Even in recent years, there have been several news stories about high-tech safety coffins offered for sale—some of which even include a bottle of oxygen, just in case.

So what about the aforementioned phrases? Well, “saved by the bell” is easy enough: it’s a boxing term, first used in the 1930s. It refers to a boxer who gets a (sometimes temporary) break from being pummeled when the bell rings to signal the end of the round. “Dead ringer” is a bit trickier—though a moment’s reflection will show that it has nothing to do with being buried alive; it refers to a “double,” someone or something that looks just like someone or something else. The “dead” part gives an expression a sense of exactness or completeness, as in “dead even” or “dead wrong.” As for “ringer,” it’s a slang term for a fake or an illicit substitute (as in a sporting competition). My dictionary says this meaning goes back to the 15th century. I’ve read elsewhere that it derives from “ring the changes,” which originally meant to ring a set of church bells in a variety of different sequences, and later took on a metaphorical meaning of varying the way one performs any action. In any case, it clearly predates the use of safety coffins. As for that story about life in the 1500s…some bad ideas just refuse to die.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 23, 2005.

Image credit: J. G. Krichbaum [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Pouring a glass of beer

Well, this is just confusing on so many different levels. For starters, “Happy Hour” is almost never an hour long; we all know this. And it’s only happy for you in the sense that you’re paying a little less for your drinks, on the theory that they’ll loosen you up enough to make you want to spend more overall, thus making the bartender happy. But what is one to make of Happy Hour Day? Is it a day on which Happy Hour lasts 24 hours? (Unlikely.) Is it the one day a week when Happy Hour is observed? (Obviously not.) Seriously, what is the point? I can’t tell you. My suggestion: buy yourself a cheap drink somewhere and spend an hour nurturing happy thoughts. Boom! Happy hour.

Image credit: Public domain, via MaxPixel

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


Ghost of a massacred French village

History was always my least favorite subject in school. The endless lists of names, dates, and places did nothing but make me sleepy. Events that took place hundreds or thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia, or Rome, or Russia may be extremely important, but I could never picture them, never really come to grips with what they were like. Besides, the problem with history is that there’s just so much of it. There’s no way I could keep it all straight. So in my high school days when the topic in class was World War II, I managed to absorb just enough information to get through the exams, and then promptly forgot most of it. I understood the broad outlines—or so I thought—but the details mostly eluded me.

I knew, for example, that France was occupied by the Germans, that the Allies landed on D-Day and routed the invading army, and that this was a deciding moment in bringing the war to an end. But the simplified image I had was that of a huge, definitive victory, as though a day after the landings in Normandy, the occupation was over and France was back to normal. That may have been a close enough approximation to get me by in high school, but it was very far from the truth. Four days after D-Day—June 10, 1944—the German army was still firmly in control of most of France, and it was then that one of the most notorious atrocities of the war took place in the quiet French village of Oradour-sur-Glane.

The End of Obscurity

Oradour had only about 650 residents and no particular claim to fame. It was a cheery, modern village with all the necessary amenities: butcher shops and bakeries, cafés, hair salons, schools, tailors, a church, a Renault dealership, and even an electric streetcar connecting the village to nearby cities. But it was neither a commercial power nor a tourist destination—just another small village. Oradour was notably insignificant in another way, too: it was not known as a center of the French Resistance against the Germans. It was, or should have been, small enough and obscure enough to stay out of trouble, and indeed, for the most part the occupying German troops had ignored it.

But after D-Day, Resistance fighters stepped up their efforts to impede the travel of German troops from across France to reinforce the Normandy contingent. On June 7, not far from Oradour, they blew up a railway bridge, killed several soldiers, and took a high-ranking SS officer prisoner. There is some evidence that the Resistance may also have attacked a German convoy carrying gold, making off with the cargo. The enraged Germans felt obliged to retaliate, and they chose to take their frustrations out on Oradour. The reasons Oradour was chosen have never been entirely clear. It may have been the Germans believed their missing gold was hidden there; it may have been that it was small and easily contained; or it may have been random.

The Oradour Massacre

In any case, the German army decided they were going to wipe out an entire town. On the morning of June 10, troops surrounded Oradour. They went from building to building, systematically rounding up all the inhabitants of the town and herding them into the public square. Then the women and children were taken to the church and locked inside, while the men were divided into groups and taken into various barns and garages. The soldiers set off a bomb in the church. The women who were not killed by the blast tried to break out to escape the smoke, but they were immediately shot by soldiers waiting outside. Meanwhile, other troops used machine guns to mow down the groups of men, and then calmly stepped through the heaps of bodies, shooting anyone who still moved. In all, 642 people were killed—men, women, and children—all of whom had carefully kept their distance from the events of the war.

The Germans did not stop there, however. They were ordered to disfigure the faces of the dead so they could not be identified, and then burn the bodies. After looting the houses and stores, they then burned every one of the village’s 328 buildings. When they left the following day, Oradour was entirely obliterated—a lifeless, smoking shell where a vibrant village had stood the morning before.

The Aftermath

The story of Oradour is known from a handful of people who managed to escape. Two women and one child climbed out of the church through a broken window, though only one woman survived her injuries; five wounded men escaped from one of the barns; and one child ran when he saw the soldiers in town. Other than those seven, the only survivors of Oradour were about 20 people who fled when they saw the approaching troops and residents who were out of town for the day.

The French government decided not to rebuild Oradour, but to leave the remains of the old village as a monument to the dead and a reminder of what had occurred there. Nine years later, in 1953, a new village of Oradour, adjacent to the former site, was opened. That same year, members of the SS who had participated in the Oradour massacre were tried for war crimes, with several of them being sentenced to death or a lifetime of hard labor. Meanwhile, a debate was taking place regarding French citizens who had been forced to serve in the German army: should they, too, be punished for their roles in the war? A week after the guilty verdicts were handed down, France resolved that issue by passing a general amnesty law, freeing all those who had been convicted. This infuriated the survivors and the families of those who died in Oradour, and strained relations between the new Oradour and the national government for many years.

The Ghost of Oradour

We drove into Oradour on a hot, cloudless day in June 2003 while on vacation in France. The only entrance to the old village is through a modern visitors’ center, with an extensive exhibit detailing the events leading up to the massacre, a video featuring stories from the survivors, and a description of the bitter aftermath. After taking in the sobering history, you walk through a tunnel into the town. For the most part, everything that was made of wood or glass was destroyed—roofs, floors, windows, doors; only stone walls, sidewalks, and metal fixtures remain intact. Small signs indicate the function of each building and the name of its former owner. I was surprised at how large and spread out the village was; the scale of the destruction was truly astonishing.

On the edge of the village is the cemetery, which for me was the most striking part of the town. It was deeply disturbing to realize that the entire town is buried here, and more disturbing still to read, again and again, “Died June 10, 1944.” Unlike the sites we had visited in Paris where the nameless dead of centuries ago were interred, this cemetery struck much closer to home. Though I have no personal connection to anyone from Oradour, I somehow felt as though this could have been my village, my friends, my family listed on the roll of the dead. It’s hard not to be affected by the randomness and ruthlessness with which so many innocent people were killed.

Despite the controversy over amnesty for those who took part in the killings, the overall message conveyed to Oradour visitors is not merely to remember, but to remember with equanimity. The massacre of Oradour, after all, was one of retaliation; the only purpose revenge would serve would be to perpetuate the cycle of more retaliation. The world does not need more terror, death, and destruction—whether in an idyllic French countryside, in the Middle East, or anywhere else. The only way to stop that cycle is to take the bold and audacious step of countering violence with peace.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 23, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on November 3, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Armistice Day in London, 11 November 1918

On November 11, 1918 at 11:00 A.M., an armistice was signed between the allied nations and Germany, marking the end of hostilities on the western front in World War I. This holiday is now referred to as “Veterans Day” in the United States and “Remembrance Day” in Canada, but in some nations it still goes by the older term Armistice Day, and I thought it fitting to use that term here in honor of the fact that this year is the hundredth anniversary of this important historical event. Of course, more and bloodier wars were to follow, as people failed to learn the lessons of history. I’m not optimistic that humanity could survive a third world war, so how about we all just stop killing each other once and for all?

Image credit: American official photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Lungs diagram

The frontiers of human respiration

It’s funny the way random little factoids stick in my head, even after many years. When I was in eighth grade, I did a report for my science class on Pascal’s Law, a description of the way fluids behave in a closed system (and the basis of all hydraulics, among other things). In the course of researching that project I came across a tiny piece of information that blew my 13-year-old mind: the word fluid is not a synonym of liquid; a fluid can be a liquid or a gas. Really? I’ve been breathing a fluid all my life? I just couldn’t get over it. Neither could my friends—I thought my endless recitations of trivia made me look smarter, but they found it annoying.

Years later, I read a Star Trek novel in which the crew of the Enterprise encountered a race of humanoid beings who breathed a liquid; the book went to great lengths to describe what that experience was like for one of the humans who had to interact with them. Although this fictional liquid was compatible with human lungs, the psychological shock of breathing a liquid was pretty intense. Later still, the very same concept showed up in the 1989 film The Abyss, as well as in Dan Brown’s 2009 novel The Lost Symbol, among other places. But hey, that’s all just science fiction, right? Amazingly enough, humans can indeed breathe certain very special liquids.

Fluid Thinking

In order for any fluid to work for human respiration, it has to perform two main functions extremely well: delivering oxygen to the lungs and removing carbon dioxide. Air obviously does both; so do some other combinations of gases (such as those used in diving). But it’s reasonable to think some liquids may be able to do the same thing. The first experiments involving respiration of a liquid took place in the 1960s. Mice were made to breathe a saline solution with a high concentration of dissolved oxygen. The mice survived for a little while, but although the solution delivered enough oxygen, it was ineffective at removing carbon dioxide; over time, it also caused damage to the lungs.

A few years later, researchers began experimenting with perfluorocarbons, or perfluorinated hydrocarbons—liquids similar to freon that (despite being unfriendly to the ozone layer when they evaporate) are able to dissolve both oxygen and carbon dioxide readily. Initial results were much better than with the oxygenated saline solutions, and mice were able to return to normal gas breathing afterward. Over the next several decades, the formulas for breathable perfluorocarbons (PFCs) were refined further. The best-known liquid of this kind is called perflubron, also known by the brand name LiquiVent. Perflubron is a clear, oily liquid with twice the density of water. It has the capability to carry more than twice as much oxygen per unit of volume as air. And it’s inert, so it’s unlikely to damage lung tissues. Because it has a very low boiling point, it can be cleared from the lungs quickly and easily by evaporation.

You may be thinking: it’s great that humans can breathe a liquid, but why would anyone want to?

Divers Uses

The primary application of liquid breathing is the medical treatment of certain lung problems. For example, babies born prematurely often have underdeveloped lungs. Because perflubron can carry more oxygen than air, it can help relieve respiratory distress until the lungs are able to function with regular air. But it has also been used for adults with acute respiratory failure, whether due to disease, trauma, burns, or the inhalation of smoke, water, or other toxins. The liquid encourages collapsed alveoli to open, washes out contaminants, and provides better exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide for lungs that are not fully functional. In clinical use, the lungs are usually not filled completely with the liquid; instead, liquid ventilation is usually used in conjunction with conventional gas ventilation.

Another potential use for liquid breathing is in diving. Ordinarily, divers must breathe heavily pressurized gases to prevent their lungs from collapsing deep underwater, but this requires decompression on the way up and carries the risk of nitrogen narcosis and numerous other problems. If the lungs were filled with a liquid instead, most of those problems would simply disappear. This would, in theory, enable divers to reach greater depths, ascend more quickly, and experience somewhat lower risks. Despite what we see in the movies, this technique is not yet ready for prime time, but with advances in equipment, fluid formulas, and training, liquid breathing could someday change the nature of diving dramatically. It could also have an application in helping to protect against high G forces during space travel.

For all these amazing benefits, liquid breathing still involves one major difficulty: it’s much harder for human lungs to move liquid in and out than it is to breathe air. Even though perflubron is so much better than air at carrying oxygen and carbon dioxide, that advantage can be lost if you don’t circulate it rapidly enough. Without the use of a mechanical ventilator, this is going to be especially problematic for someone who’s ill, and even a diver in top condition could become exhausted from such laborious breathing during a deep and strenuous dive. So I won’t be making plans to live at the bottom of a PFC-filled swimming pool, but it certainly is intriguing to think that a lung full of liquid could prevent me from drowning.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 24, 2005.

Image credit: By Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day