Trick or Treat?

This is a slightly edited version of a post that originally appeared on the Guardian Higher Education blog.

Crime writers often refer to the ‘smell of death’ lingering in the air after a grisly murder scene is encountered. Indeed, decay starts 4 minutes after death, and produces a smell comprising a complex mélange of 800+ ‘cadaveric volatile compounds’. In a PLOS One article, a team of researchers studied a decaying pig using ‘Comprehensive Two-Dimensional Gas Chromatography-Time-of-Flight Mass Spectrometry’ (Image: warning, not very pretty). One other study investigating this topic was published in the journal Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry (which rather satisfyingly abbreviates to Anal Bioanal Chem when cited). While pigs are a fairly decent approximation of humans in such contexts, the study failed to detect two compounds, cadaverine and putrescine, usually found in decaying human cadavers. Lovely.

Sticking with death for the moment, you may recall reports of imminent doomsday due to the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012. A paper entitled The Mayan Doomsday’s effect on survival outcomes in clinical trials considered how research might be affected by our then-imminent extinction. While such trials would become useless, rigorous computer modelling showed that population actually begins to increase in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse, even when controlling for known sources of bias (including “astronauts currently aboard the international space station… Dungeons and Dragons players, men who have read Fifty Shades of Grey and other similar beings likely to be unaffected by the apocalypse”). The only plausible explanation, obviously, is a postapocalyptic zombie repopulation.

While the world did not, in fact, end in 2012, zombies, and other mythical/undead beings nonetheless remain a concern. A truly excellent paper in Skeptical Inquirer aims to explain away zombies, ghosts, and vampires with the power of maths and physics, even though Buffy or a crossbow would definitely be way cooler. The authors start with ghosts, firstly explaining that the ‘cold chills’ often experienced in haunted houses are actually just a result of poor insulation (no EU building regs in the olden days), and secondly noting the rather amusing paradox that ghosts are often portrayed as walking, despite having no physical body. As the authors point out, “it seems strange to have a supernatural power that only allows you to get around by mimicking human ambulation… a very slow and awkward way of moving about in the scheme of things”.

Then comes vampires. Assuming vampires only feed once a month (“a highly conservative assumption given any Hollywood vampire film”), and that each time a vampire feasts upon a human their respective populations increase/decrease by 1, a simple geometric progression suggests that vampires would wipe out humans in approximately 2.5 years (assuming arbitrarily that the first vampire appeared in the year 1400). There is no way that human birth rates could outpace this, so our very existence contradicts the existence of vampires. Evidently the creator of the vampire legend failed maths.

A Norwegian study, however, believes vampires are real and that “the Balkan region has been especially haunted”. Is it possible, they ask, to repel vampires with garlic? As no vampires were available for study, leeches were used instead (hey, if pigs are a good enough approximation for humans…). As it happens, leeches by far prefer a hand smeared in garlic to one without. To ensure the future survival of the human race, the authors recommend tight restrictions be placed on the use of garlic. Speaking of vampire bites, vampire bats have a glycoprotein in their saliva that keeps the blood of the bitten victim from clotting while the bat is drinking (it is called Draculin).

Finally, we can dispense with zombies. The usual zombie paradigm is similar to vampires, thus the same mathematical logic applies. However, it is apparently also possible to be zombified by the voodoo hex of vexed enemy. In one curious case, Haitian boy Wilfrid Doricent appeared to be dead, but returned after death, without memory or effective cognition, having dug himself out of his own grave. Bizarrely, the zombie effects appear to have been cause by a poison brewed by an angry uncle, using the toxin from a puffer fish similar to that used in the Japanese delicacy Fugu. The brain damage was simply a result of hypoxia (due to the lack of oxygen available in a grave).

Scariest Pumpkin I’ve Seen This Week

pumpkin

Most Mortal Stationary I’ve Seen this Week

Staplers. Courtesy of The Lives and Deaths of Academic Staplers

staplers

After collecting morbidity and mortality data for three semesters, I am now ending my study of staplers. The final finding: On average, my library’s reference desk staplers succumbed after 46.5 days of service.

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