Tag Archives: science

The cycle of life?

Reading Mary Roach’s fascinating book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers recently, I came across the notion of composting of human remains as an alternative to burial or cremation.  I found the idea extremely attractive, particularly after reading the following charmingly enthusiastic descriptions of the process:

..we must travel to Sweden, to a tiny island called Lyrön, due west of Gothenburg.  This is the home of a forty-seven-year-old  biologist-entrepreneur named Susanne Wiigh-Masak.  Two years ago, Wiigh-Masak founded a company called Promessa, which seeks to replace cremation (the choice of 70 percent of Swedes) with a technologically enhanced form of organic composting.  This is no mom-and-pop undertaking of the lunatic Green Fringe.  Wiigh-Masak has King Carl Gustav and the Church of Sweden on her side.  She has crematoria vying to be the first to compost a dead Swede.  …  She has major corporate backing, an international patent, and over two hundred press clips.  Mortuary professionals and entrepreneurs from Germany, Holland, Israel, Australia, and the United States have expressed interest in representing Promessa’s technology in their own countries.  …

Let’s say a man dies in Upsala, and that he has checked the box on the church-distributed living will that says: “I want that the new method freeze-drying ecological funeral will be used if it is available when I die.”  (The equipment is still being developed; Wiigh-Masak hopes to have it ready sometime in 2003.)  The man’s body will be brought to an establishment that has licensed Promessa’s technology.  He will be lowered into a vat of liquid nitrogen and frozen.  From here he will progress to the second chamber, where either ultrasound waves or mechanical vibrations will be used to break his easily shattered self into small pieces, more or less the size of ground chuck.  The pieces, still frozen, will then be freeze-dried and used as compost for a memorial tree or shrub, either in a churchyard memorial park or in the family’s yard.  …

She pushes a shovel into the heap and raises a foamy clod.  It is complex and full of unnamable fragments, like a lasagna baked by an unsupervised child.  She points out feathers from a duck that died a few weeks back, shells from the mussels that her husband, Peter, farms on the other side of the island, cabbage from last week’s coleslaw.  She explains the difference between rotting and composting, that the needs of humans and the needs of compost are similar: oxygen, water, air temperature that does not stray far from 37 degrees centigrade.  Her point: We are all nature, all made of the same basic materials, with the same basic needs.  We are no different, on a very basic level, from the ducks and the mussels and last week’s coleslaw.  Thus we should respect Nature, and when we die, we should give ourselves back to the earth.  …

She returns to the clod.  “Compost should not be ugly,” she is saying.  “It should be lovely, it should be romantic.”  She feels similarly about dead bodies.  “Death is a possibility for new life.  the body becomes something else.  I would like that that something else be as positive as possible.”  People have criticised her, she says, for lowering the dead to the level of garden waste.  She doesn’t see it that way.  “I say, let’s lift garden waste to as high a level as human bodies.”  What she’s trying to say is that nothing organic should be treated as waste.  It should all be recycled.  …

Isn’t that marvellous!  No longer will we be forced to choose between the stomach-turning process of underground decomposition or the violence of a fiery furnace.  This process will allow us to bypass the icky stuff and more or less instantly start turning into a tree (or a shrub)!  So of course the first thing I did after reading this chapter was to google Promessa.  The book had, after all, been published in 2004, so the process must be perfected by now.  Imagine my disappointment on finding the following in the Wikipedia entry:

The first Promatorium was due to be opened in the Spring of 2011 in Sweden, followed shortly by sites in the UK and South Korea.  However, as of April 2012, the first Promatorium (or Promator as Promessa Organic calls it) is still said to be ‘6 to 12 months’ away from construction.  …

The process has so far never been tested on human remains.  Tests on dead pigs has been claimed to show that much more brute force would be needed than what has been told.  Initial backers of Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak and Promessa Organic; Swedish funeral home Fonus and gas provider AGA AB, has left the project after Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak reportedly has failed to provide evidence of the process being operational.  Church of Sweden has ended the cooperation and sold off their company shares in Promessa Organic.  Susanne Wiigh-Mäsak is claiming that she is being worked against by the Swedish crematory organisation and the funeral directors of Sweden.  Professor in cellular biology and medicine, Bengt R Johansson of Gothenburg University, goes as far as calling the process surrounding the promessa method a fraud.

In several cases, the dead remains of people wanting to go through the promessa process has been waiting for up to ten years, in some cases resulting in forced burials to comply with Swedish burial law.  The method itself has come under criticism for not being real.

So I’ve pretty much given up on the composting idea (for now, at least).  I guess this would be an interesting way for my corpse to make itself useful.

DNA portraits

Check out this mind-blowing project.  Artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg is using DNA gathered from public places to create portraits of the owners.

..she gathers information about the person’s ancestry, gender, eye color,  propensity to be overweight and other traits related to facial morphology, such  as the space between one’s eyes. “I have a list of about 40 or 50 different  traits that I have either successfully analyzed or I am in the process of  working on right now,” she says.

Dewey-Hagborg then enters these parameters into a computer program to create  a 3D model of the person’s face.” Ancestry gives you most of the generic picture  of what someone is going to tend to look like. Then, the other traits point  towards modifications on that kind of generic portrait,” she explains. The  artist ultimately sends a file of the 3D model to a 3D printer on the campus of  her alma mater, New York University, so that it can be transformed into  sculpture.

Got milk?

There’s an intriguing article over at Slate, which speculates that Western civilazation may owe a lot to milk.  Although not entirely convincing – the evidence provided by the author is not exactly overwhelming – the idea is interesting to think about and I would be interested to find out more.  The argument is summarised as follows:  The transition from a foraging to a farming society, which lead to a dramatic decrease in the different types of food eaten by our ancestors, had a detrimental impact on their health.  Human remains from this time show alarming signs of disease linked to nutrient deficiencies.

And then something changed.  Although all our ancestors used to be lactose intolerant, a genetic mutation arose around 10,000 years ago which enabled adults to drink unprocessed milk.  This extra source of nutrition gave them such an edge that the mutation quickly spread through the population, boosting health and increasing life expectancy.

This is a fascinating idea, but I wonder if it would stand up to scrutiny.  As the author himself points out, our lactose intolerant ancestors were perfectly capable of digesting yoghurt and cheese, and in fact appear to have done so.  Personally, I like it, mostly because I still love nothing more than a nice tall glass of chocolate milk.

Crazy cat lady

I love cats.  Throughout my life, with the exception of times spent travelling, I’ve had at least one cat companion.  There is a pretty high chance that I will end up as a crazy cat lady with thirty cats, and when I die alone the neighbours will only discover my body after the cats have devoured half my face.  In fact, it’s only with the sternest self-control that I am managing to stick to a two-cat maximum at the moment, because every time I see a kitten I melt a little bit on the inside.

So I’m pretty sure I must be a carrier of the toxoplasmosa gondii parasite, an issue that has had me mildly worried since I first found out about it a few months ago.  Luckily, a recent study has shown that carrying this parasite probably does not cause brain cancer.  Instead, it decreases inhibitions and causes the carrier to be more outgoing.  Who wouldn’t want to be more outgoing?  Now my only worry is that if I don’t have it, how do I make sure to get it?  I love my cats, but not enough to roll around in their litter tray..

Reading: Masters of the Planet – The Search for Our Human Origins

I recently read this book by Ian Tattersall.  It explains the science around human evolution, tracing back our family tree to the split from the other apes.  It’s an entertaining and informative read, full of real science but still accessible for a layperson like me.  It explores the question of what makes us uniquely human, and concludes that it’s our ability to think symbolically that catapulted us from just one hominid species among many to rulers of our world.  It delves into the way our evolution shaped the contrary beings we are today, capable of understanding the extreme complexity of the natural world, capable of creating moving, beautiful works of art, and capable of horrendous savagery.  I would add this to the “highly recommended” pile.

Why did no one tell me about this?

You know when you come across something that’s been going on on the internet for years, and you had no idea, even though you’ve been internetising every day for years and years and years, and you feel like you never know about any of the stuff that everybody else seems to know about?  I had one of those moments when I came across this argument on xkcd’s blog:

Imagine a 747 is sitting on a conveyor belt, as wide and long as a runway.  The conveyor belt is designed to exactly match the speed of the wheels, moving in the opposite direction.  Can the plane take off?

I won’t spoil the punchline here, but it’s one of those arguments that apparently has been argued all over the internet for years now, and this is the first I’ve heard of it!

Incidentally, he also links to this question posed by Richard Feynman in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman!  I loved this as I recently loaded the audiobook onto my iPod and will be listening to it soon (as soon as I’m done savouring the anticipation)!