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Mary Roach

(specializes in one-word titles: also written Spook, about life after death and Bonk, about, well, bonking of course)

Describes the work of a crash injury analyser - the guy who looks at the dead bodies of plane crash victims to decide what happened. For instance TWA Flight 800 blew apart in midair over the Atlantic en route from JFK to Paris. Some witnesses claimed to have seen a missile strike the plane, and as traces of explosives were found, a bomb was also a possibility. The bodies recovered are usually the best witnesses in deciphering the event. In this case, the bodies were mostly intact - if there had been a bomb, they would have found a cluster of 'highly fragmented bodies' from the seats closest to the detonation. All recovered bodies are routinely x-rayed, because any bomb sends fragments of itself and local debris into people's bodies, with discernible trajectories. There were none, so a bomb was ruled out. Several bodies had chemical burns, which could suggest a missile. But they were all burned on their backs, which meant they'd been burned by jet fuel while floating on the surface of the sea. A missile would have burned them on front; their backs protected by the seats they were sitting in. Others had thermal burns, but it was the seats that were most badly scorched, which implied that a fire had swept through the cabin seconds after most passengers had been thrown out of the plane.

The injuries people suffer when they hit water from a height is also well understood, mainly because of extensive data from people committing suicide by jumping off bridges. A human body stops abruptly when it hits the water but the internal organs keep going for a fraction of a second; the aorta tears off the heart and the ribs shatter, turning into spears to rip apart heart lungs and blood vessels.

Apparently the highest speed you have even a slight of chance of surviving a fall into water is 70mph (feet first preferably) and since a body reaches terminal velocity of 120mph with a fall of 500 feet, you aren't going to make it.

This science of injury analysis started in 1954 when 2 of the first commercial passenger jets (British Comets) fell out of the sky. Both dropped into deep ocean and little wreckage was found, so they only had bodies to work from. At that stage nothing was known about impact injuries, so they had to use a lot of guinea pigs (literally) shot out of guns.The injuries they suffered were the same as the recovered Comet victims - very little external damage but severe internal trauma. To figure out exactly where the aircraft had broke up, they examined the clothing. They hypothesised that the passengers who turned up naked had been thrown out in midair and that the wind stripped them, whereas the passengers in the tail hit the sea still inside the plane, so stayed clothed. To test the theory they got the RAF to chuck a few shop dummies out of the plane several miles up, confirming that that was the pattern.

Analysis of passengers who survive plane crashes where the plane hits the ground shows that the overwhelming majority are adult males (followed by people who are sitting beside emergency exits). Presumably because they pushed everyone else out of the way.

Thomas Edison has deserved reputation as an inventor, and so, you would expect him to be a pretty rational sort of a guy.. So see this reference in his diary: "Why we do not remember. A certain group of our little people do this for us. They live in that part of our brain that is known as the fold of Broca ... There may be ten or fifteen shifts that change about and are on duty at different times like men in a factory... Therefore it seems likely that remembering a thing is all a matter of getting in touch with the shift that was on duty when the recording was done."

On a rational level people easily accept the idea of organ donations. But on an emotional level they have trouble with the idea that the patient will finally be irrevocably dead when the (still beating) heart is removed.

Part of appeal of cremation and scattering of ashes is that it takes control out of hands of priests and delivers it to the family and friends. But now problems with cremation because of pollution - worries about heavy metals, particularly mercury American guy who used to organise funerals at Arlington military cemetery, to which no-one came, got frustrated at unnecessary funeral pomp. He realized liquid nitrogen cheap (about $30 to do a body, whereas cremation uses about $100 of gas for furnace) so patented a process of freezing body then basically running it through a big log chipper. It didn't take off...

In Sweden you have to share your grave. After 25 years, men in gas masks dig you up, make the hole deeper, then bury someone else on top of you.

At the end of the day there is no dignified end for our bodies - whether decompose in a grave, cremated in a furnace or freeze dried and minced. Author used to think that burial at sea was a quick and dignified exit, until a conversation with a marine biologist who explained how fast crabs and other scavengers tear the flesh off anything that hits the sea bed

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