Laying off the Rice and Fish: A Summer of Spontaneous Combustion

On a bright spring morning in 1731 a maid knocked, to no avail, on the bedroom door of the Italian countess Cornelia Zangari, grandmother to the future Pope Pius VI. Receiving no answer, the maid pushed open the door to discover an alarming scene. In between the lady’s bed and the window were the bottom halves of two legs, a few pieces of skull, a small pile of ashes, and some yellowish goo.

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photo credit: Lynn Friedman Dept of Spontaneous Combustion via photopin (license)

The countess was no more, but what happened was anyone’s guess. There were several theories put forward, but the one that carried the day was that of the Reverend Giuseppe Bianchini, who theorized that the vapors from the alcohol bath she had taken before bed combined with the gases in the countess’s system and caught fire. Since she apparently liked to get her drink on, this explanation seemed pretty legit, and by the time Bianchini’s report of the event was translated into English and reached a wider audience, quite a few scientists looking at similarly odd cases, were willing to think he was more or less right.

If the good reverend were correct, then one could avoid spontaneous combustion by living a more temperate and careful life. That was good news for the 18th century masses, which would rather not die in a burst of flames. It’d be good news, too, for us here in the Midwestern US, because we’re in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned Midwestern summer in which the heat index is regularly well over a hundred degrees and if, God forbid, we have to get into our cars after they’ve been parked for an hour on a blacktop parking lot, we are pretty sure we’ll burst into flames.

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Pretty much what it feels like to live in the Midwest in July. Image by geralt, via Pixabay

Of course maybe we will, because even nearly three hundred years later, the scientific community isn’t in agreement about the causes, or even the reality, of spontaneous combustion. Over the years there have been numerous explanations for the phenomenon, from the ridiculous notion that such fires likely came from a nearby external source, to the claim that the fires result from a diet too high in rice and fish.

Regardless of whether we need to worry about suddenly disappearing in a flame of glory, events that fire investigators and nosy neighbors can’t figure out how to explain are few and far between. In fact we might not even know much about them at all if the case of the Italian countess hadn’t been made famous by Charles Dickens, who used the event as inspiration for the death of Mr. Krook in Bleak House.

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No way is this man going to let the truth get in the way of good fiction. Charles Dickens by Antoine Claudet, 1852. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Dickens’s readers bought the scene, trusting the author who gave it to them, but at least one critic did not. Amateur physiologist, as well as literary critic and friend of Dickens, George Henry Lewes was highly vocal in his insistence that the author’s use of spontaneous combustion as a means to an end was “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction.”

And this is where I take Dickens’s side, because fiction is fiction and fire is fire. When the two meet, anything can happen. A drunken rag and bottle merchant can dissolve into a puddle of ash and goo. Or a Midwestern writer can burst into flames in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Fortunately, truth has higher standards than fiction. It turns out cases of “spontaneous” combustion take place more often in winter, when people tend to keep closer company with fire. So I suspect I’ll be okay. As long as I don’t go too crazy with the rice and fish.

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Daily Step Goals: Historical-ish Claims from a Scientific-ish Perspective

If you happened to be a legionary during the early Roman Empire, you were accustomed to walking. In fact, according to Roman military writer Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus (known by his friends and most practical historians as simply Vegetius), these guys were expected every day to march a little over 18 miles in about five hours or so.

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And the sad part is, they aren’t even getting full credit for their hard work. They’ll have to go to the app later and add “lugging heavy equipment, 5 hours.” photo credit: Marcia via photopin (license)

Given that the Roman hour became longer and shorter depending on the season (don’t think about that too hard or you’ll get a headache), it’s difficult to know exactly how much time the soldiers were given to compete their strenuous hike. But to put the task into a little bit of modern day perspective, they didn’t reach their daily Fitbit goal until somewhere around 45,000 steps. Even if they had the full day to work on it, that’s a lot of walking.

As the number of personal fitness trackers I’m seeing worn has exploded over the last few years, I’m guessing by now that most of you are aware that if you’re not getting your prescribed minimum 10,000 steps each day, you’re probably going to die or something. Well, someday, anyway.

But it turns out, the recommendation to take at least 10,000 steps per day, in order to be an active, healthy person, isn’t an especially scientific one. It most likely comes from a brand of Japanese pedometer marketed in the 1960’s under the name manpo-kei , which, if you can believe everything you read on the Internet,  roughly translates to “10,000 steps meter.”

So, like with a lot of un-scientific ideas that sound pretty logical and scientific-ish, 10,000 was adopted as the number to walk toward.

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Evidently typing doesn’t count as exercise.

While that may not be a lot in the daily life of the average long-distance runner or floor nurse at a large hospital, most of us don’t take more than about 4 to 7 thousand in a day, unless we really work at it. And as a writer, I have to make an intentional effort to get there, because like most writers, I get my best work done on the days I spend a lot of time sitting.

Of course when I say most, I have to exclude historical novelist Ben Kane. Kane writes novels set in Ancient Rome, and while doing so, he spends a lot of time at his desk. He explains that after six novels, he started to realize that while writing is great for sharpening the mind, it’s not so great for trimming the waistline. So Kane grabbed some friends, some typical legionary garb, and about 42 pounds of equipment (still only about half what an actual legionary may have carried). Then he started marching.

Now that’s dedication to the craft. I currently write in the era of 19th century America, and it’s pretty rare (and by that I mean it never happens) for me to don my petticoat and corset to order to take a stroll. But I do have a Fitbit and I try to reach a somewhat arbitrary step goal every day.

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One of my better days. But I definitely wasn’t wearing full legionary garb. Or a petticoat.

And, really, arbitrary may describe the 45,000 daily steps credited to Roman soldiers by Vegetius, because some scholars have argued that as a writer who never actually donned eighty pounds of legionary garb and equipment, and who wrote in the fourth-century about the bygone era of early Roman Empire military might, Vegetius may not be a strictly reliable source. In other words, Vegetius may have been more practical historian than actual military historian, and he may have had the tendency to exaggerate.

But it really would have been important for a well-oiled military machine to be able to march long distances with great stamina, so if not exactly reliable history, the writer’s claims at least sound historical-ish.

And sometimes I think that’s good enough. Because what most medical experts are saying about fitness bands is that they are helping people become more aware of their sedentary tendencies and in many cases, are encouraging people to get up and move more than they were. We may not all get to 10,000 steps every day, but if we are making an effort to get there, then we are probably improving our health.

You can take my word for it. Because I’m a writer. And my claim sounds pretty scientific-ish.

Your Favorite Dinosaur and the Lie Your Science Teachers May Not Have Told You After All.

In 1870, renowned paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope published a description of a newly discovered giant plesiosaur (an extinct aquatic reptile that a reader less informed than you might mistakenly refer to as a dinosaur). Unfortunately, he’d failed to place the head on the right part of the body, sticking the skull to the end of the creature’s long tail.

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Othniel Charles Marsh, respected paleontologist, winner of the bone war, and maybe kind of behaved like a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Surely after a while, Cope would have figured out his mistake, but he didn’t manage to do so before renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (the judgment of whose parents I have to question because they named their kid “Othniel”) gleefully pointed out the mistake for the world to see. The two men weren’t on great terms to begin with, as rumors circulated that Marsh had once paid Cope’s field crew to send anything they found to Marsh instead.

Once insult was added to injury, the great Bone Wars began, with two of the most prominent paleontologists in North America behaving like squabbling children. The rivalry raged for twenty years resulting in great advances in the field, which before this period had discovered only eighteen dinosaur species on the continent. Between the two men, they described and named over 130 new species of dinosaur.

But as beneficial as it may have been, this feverish pace of scientific discovery had some drawbacks, too. The paleontologists’ dig teams were known to spy on each other, steal fossils from one another, vandalize one another’s dig sites, or even dynamite their own to keep anyone else from digging there. And then there were the mistakes of the men themselves that occasionally found their way into work that was rushed to publication.

Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe behaved like a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Marsh “won” the bone wars, discovering about eighty North American dinosaurs to Cope’s fifty between the years of 1870 and 1890, but had the two men lived so long, Cope might have gotten the last laugh. In 1877, Marsh described a long-necked herbivorous dinosaur he called Apatosaurus. Just two years later, he unearthed another long-necked dino he called Brontosaurus. Trouble is that in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs determined Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were really the same species. I imagine Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Because life isn’t fair, and sometimes parents decide to name their son Othniel, the earlier name had precedent. And so, since the year 1903, there has been no such thing as a brontosaurus. No friendly leaf-eating, lumbering, earth-shaking, and, let’s face it, small-brained brontosaurs. And despite what you may have learned from the Flintstones, no brontosaurus burgers or brontosaurus ribs either.

Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head at the Carnegie Natural Museum of Natural History. By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head.
By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
How can this be? I know, I know, because when I attended elementary school in the 1980’s, Brontosaurus featured prominently in my science books. And the name was featured in museums up until the 1970’s, when paleontologists discovered the head Marsh had placed on his original “Brontosaurus” actually belonged to yet another species. And again, Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Even the US postal service got itself into a heap of trouble when as recently as 1989 it issued a series of stamps featuring popular dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pteranodon, and Brontosaurus. To be fair, though, the USPS was probably using an elementary school science textbook as a reference.

So why did the name persist for so long? Well, according to Matt Lamanna, paleontologist and curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Brontosaurus is just a really cool name. It means “thunder lizard,” evoking the ominous thumping and quaking at the creature’s approach. In contrast, Apatosaur means “deceptive lizard,” which I guess evokes the desire for the creature to pose as a different species so it can go by a cooler name.

Personally, I miss the brontosaurus. Or at least I did. Because earlier this week a team of researchers from the Nova University of Lisbon in Portugal revealed that a comprehensive comparative analysis of dino bones has led them to the undeniable conclusion that Brontosaurus was a separate species after all.

Real or not, the "thunder lizard" has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)
Real or not, the “thunder lizard” has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)

So break out the old text books, reissue the dino stamps, and grill up some stoneage burgers, because the Thunder Lizard is back. I guess Cope didn’t get the last laugh after all. Smiling in Heaven now, the indisputable victor of the bone wars is O.C. Marsh, which is how he’s most often referred to in the literature, because it’s a much cooler name than Othniel.