Re: Spontaneous human combustion

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Spontaneous Human Combustion occurs when a human body bursts into flame and is reduced to ashes without any apparent external source of ignition. Moreover, while the body is almost completely incinerated, which requires temperatures of about 3,000 degrees, the rest of the room, the furniture remain almost undamaged by the fire. SHC takes place in Charles Dickens' novels but also in contemporary police investigations. A few months ago, the badly burned body of a pensioner was found in his living room in Galway, Ireland. Apart from his body, investigators could only find minor damage on the ceiling above him and the floor beneath him. "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," said the coroner.

Unsurprisingly, the phenomenon is accompanied by much speculation and controversy.

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Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

Sebastian Thielke, a first year student of Design Interactions, looked closely at the phenomenon for a project he showed at the RCA's Work in Progress exhibition which closed a few weeks ago.

While investigating the paranormal phenomenon, the designer found about long forgotten military experiments that were carried out in the 1960s USA. Thielke's finding tells a fragmented story of how science, in the name of war, is willing to push the boundaries of what is ethically and morally acceptable, and how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational. His work looks also at the way information technology contributes to the intertwining of science and occult beliefs.
In the age of information technology these ideas and philosophies have won new territories on the internet where they can grow and multiply on websites and social networks, and tie into ever growing theories of science and spiritualism, conspiracy and mass deception, Thielke explains on his project page.

So far, it seems that the project is more about investigating than designing. What i found most interesting though is that the designer is ready to explore and comment on a mysterious, paranormal, pseudoscientific phenomenon. As far as i know, this is very unusual area of research for a designer.

Extracts from the email exchange i had with Sebastian:

Why this interest in spontaneous human combustion? It is such a spooky phenomenon.

Yes, that's a good question. This project was initially a response to a brief. It was a two-three week project and we had very short time to chose a topic we wanted to work on.

I didn't know much about spontaneous human combustion (SHC). I just remember reading about it many years ago in a Paul Auster novel, which I've now forgotten the name of. But SHC has stuck in my head since. I really like these kinds of phenomenons that are so mystical they seem to be fictional and yet they have occurred several times in history.

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Mary Reeser, a suspected victim of spontaneous human combustion. Her remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) and her backbone remained

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Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

I had a look on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_human_combustion and it doesn't appear to be a phenomenon one should take very seriously. The causes of SHC are mostly either paranormal or unknown/unobserved. What is the consensus among scientists about the phenomenon?

There are some scientific or causal explanations, but they all fall short of explaining every detail of the events. One of the main topics of discussion is the source of ignition: how people actually start to combust. The rational explanations all claims that the source of ignition is external, they suggest things such as static electricity from a carpet, a dropped cigarette or a malfunctioning power socket sparking a flame. While these might be valid explanations they don't seem to have been confirmed in any of the reported cases, only suggested. And it still doesn't explain how a person sitting in a chair can burn to ashes without the fire spreading to the rest of the house. When a body is cremated it is burned at almost 900 degrees Celsius for about two hours. Investigators have tried to explain this with what they call the 'wick effect', which is also mentioned on wikipedia. It describes how a body can burn for several hours; the melted body fat becoming a flamable liquid, saturating the clothes of the victim and thus acting as a wick that can burn for hours.

But I didn't really do that much research on the scientific side, and it doesn't seem like there has been that much research done to explain this phenomenon. Since it is such a rare occurrence, I guess it is mostly dismissed as random coincidences. But that is what is so intriguing about it - that it is such a weird phenomenon. The circumstances when it happens, the bizarre visual sceneries it leaves behind of ashes, burned limbs and melted TVs. It has occurred so few times that it cannot be perfectly explained by science, yet it has occurred enough times to have earned its definition as a phenomenon. It leaves so much space for speculations into the mystical and paranornal, and that was the part I was most interested in.

So I did a lot of research into Kundalini, which is one of the more mystical explanations of SHC. Kundalini is a term used in Eastern philosophies. It is a bodily energy that can be awakened through yoga and meditation. Some people believe that this energy might be able to cause a human being to combust - that it causes a subatomic chain reaction that heats up the body. I'm not going to go into detail about Kundalini, there is plenty of stuff to read about it online, but what you discover when you start researching Kundalini is that it opens up a huge world of New Age interpretations that mixes it with (pseudo) scientific theories. It is amazing to see how different New Age, spiritual/religious cultures appropriate science and piece together their own explanations of how the world works. And I believe the internet plays a key role in this. There is so much information available out there for anyone to study, and since there are no academic institutions governing and validating this knowledge it becomes an entangling jungle of pocket-philosophy and pseudo-science, which mutates into various unimaginable forms on blogs and forums. I guess you can say that this has been my material in this project.

How is SHC related to the military experiments carried out in the 1960s in the USA your research refers to?

The thing that lead me to find the items that I presented in the exhibition, was a video I stumbled upon during my research. As I was reading through several odd blogs and forums about SHC and kundalini, there was a few places where a 'video of a burning mouse' was mentioned. When I finally found the video on YouTube, it was this weird short clip of an actual burning mouse, which didn't really tell me much. But as I read through the comments, I could see that people were discussing and speculating what the weird shadow that is seen in the beginning of the clip might be. There was all sorts of stupid suggestions, but one that was particularly interesting was a woman (the name LPK19 didn't actually reveal any gender) who wrote that she had seen the clip before when she was working at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. I ended up emailing the museum about the clip and they told me that it had been a part of the remnants of a military lab in the Alpena Air National Guard Base in Alpena, Michigan, which burned to the ground in 1964.

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Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

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Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

What were these experiments about? Where can we find more information about them?

There are no detailed descriptions of what exactly the experiments were about, but from looking at the photos and papers it seems like they were dealing with sound frequencies. There is a photo of an oscilloscope, a spreadsheet where different frequencies are noted, plus some technical drawings of what seems to be directional speakers. From my research I've learned about something called the Solfeggio Frequencies, which is believed by many spirituals to have healing powers (or potentially destructive if used in the wrong way). Solfeggio, or Solfège, is an old music system that were used in gregorian chants to associate different note-intervals, with specific syllables: ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la and ti. It seems that they were using those frequencies in their experiments.

Some of the other photos shows men dissecting black, burned corpses of pigs and there is also an illustration of the anatomy of a pig brain, which of course shows that they have been testing on animals.

A third photo shows a person that seems to be meditating. This along with a drawing that illustrates the seven chakras of kundalini, suggests that they have somehow used these ideas and philosophies in their experiments.

Nowhere is there any mentioning of SHC.

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Image courtesy Sebastian Rønde Thielke

And what is that helmet you were exhibiting at the work in progress show?

It seems like it is meant to project sound into the forehead of the person wearing it. In Kundalini it is believed that the body has seven energy centres called chakras. The Ajna Chakra, also known as the third eye, is situated just behind the center between the eyebrows. It is also associated with the pineal gland inside the brain. I suspect that they have been trying to somehow stimulate this part, the 'third eye', to affect the kundalini of the test person or animal.

Your project page talks about 'how far the institutions of national defense are willing to go beyond what is rational.' What do you mean by that? That they are pulling hoaxes on us?

No, what I meant with the word rational was that sometimes military research pursues ideas that has no scientific foundation or that goes beyond what is ethical.

Most of the technology that surrounds us was originally developed for military purposes and warfare has always been one of the major drivers of science and technological development. In this race to be technologically ahead, military labs have sometimes gone too far in their research and experiments. The Nazi experiments or those of the Unit 731 in Japan are horrible examples of military funded science turning a blind eye on ethics and human rights. In more recent time the CIA Stargate project has shown that occult, paranormal and mystic beliefs still have a place in military research. My findings seems to be from one such program.

Thank you Sebastian!

Related: Delusions of Self-Immolation.

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