altStiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers  by Mary Roach (W. W. Norton, 2003)

This was another gift from my library-book-sale-scrounging sister-in-law, who does an amazing job of finding books I like.  This one I doubt I'd have picked out on my own, but it was fascinating reading.  Best of all, Mary Roach is an excellent writer.  I'd reckon not many people could write about such a gruesome topic with respect, accuracy, and humor.

The hardest chapter to read was on cannibalism, especially about the consumption in China, "for medicinal purposes," of aborted babies.  Wanting to find out if this was true or an anti-Chinese urban legend, the author investigated and was told that it used to be true, but the government had subsequently declared the practice of selling aborted babies illegal.  Further investigation revealed, however, that the reason for the ban was so that the government could hold a monopoly on the business....

The chapter on head transplants was nearly as disturbing, and reminded me strongly of C. S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength, which was written in 1945 and shows the influence of early experiments in the field.

The most interesting and informative chapter was on the use of forensic analysis to help determine the cause of an airplane crash.  Analysis of remains helps determine if a bomb was involved, and if so where it was placed (how fragmented are the bodies, and what is the pattern of embedded shrapnel?), if the plane was hit by a missile (what parts of the bodies were burned?), and where the plane broke apart (which bodies were clothed, and which nude?).  As I suspected, the purpose of all the airplane safety lectures is to help with near-ground crashes.  Break up in midair and, as Roach puts it, you've booked your final flight.  The kinds of problems that cause a plane to rip apart high in the sky are simply not survivable.

Take-off and landing crashes are potentially survivable 80 to 85 percent of the time.  However...

The key word here is "potentially."  Meaning that if everything goes the way it went in the FAA-required cabin evacuation simulation, you'll survive.  Federal regulations require airplane manufacturers to be able to evacuate all passengers through half of a plane's emergency exits within ninety seconds.  Alas, in reality, evacuations rarely happen the way they do in simulations.  "If you look at survivable crashes, it's rare that even half the emergency exits open," says [injury analyst Dennis] Shanahan.  "Plus, there's a lot of panic and confusion."  Shanahan cites the example of a Delta crash in Dallas.  "It should have been very survivable.  There were very few traumatic injuries.  But a lot of people were killed by the fire.  They found them stacked up at the emergency exits.  Couldn't get them open." Fire is the number one killer in airplane mishaps.  It doesn't take much of an impact to explode a fuel tank and set a plane on fire.  Passengers die from inhaling searing-hot air and from toxic fumes released by burning upholstery or insulation.  They die because their legs are broken from slamming into the seat in front of them and they can't crawl to the exits.  They die becajuse passengers don't exit flaming planes in an orderly manner; they stampede and elbow and trample.

The secret to surviving in such a situation?  Sitting close to an exit is number two, but the most important, statistically, is to be male.  I guess "women and children first" only works on ships, where chivalry has time to overrule our basic survival instinct.

Cadavers are useful for more purposes than people think when they nobly declare, "I want to donate my body to science": from anatomy class, to surgery practice, to automobile safety labs (crash test dummies can only go so far), to research on the most practical and ecological ways of disposing of bodies (intended to inform funerary practices, not murderers seeking to hide evidence).  They're also used to analyze the effects of weapons of war, and I include the following for its Swiss reference:

Theodore Kocher, a Swiss professor of surgery and a member of the Swiss army militia (the Swiss prefer not to fight, but they are armed, and with more than little red pocket knife/can openers), spent a year firing Swiss Vetterly rifles into all manner of targets ... with the aim of understanding the mechanisms of wounding from bullets.

And one more, to show the kind of humor with which Ms. Roach lightens this difficult subject.

Our conversation has moved from White's lab to a booth in a nearby Middle Eastern restaurant.  My recommendation to you is that you never eat baba ganoush or, for that matter, any soft, glistening gray food item while carrying on a conversation involving monkey brains.

Posted by sursumcorda on Sunday, December 13, 2015 at 6:53 am | Edit
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Glad you enjoyed it. The chapter on head transplants was the one that really got to me. Not that cannibalism isn't bad, but on the "freak you out" meter, head transplants beat cannibalism.

I have always listed "organ donor" on my license, but I have never been keen on leaving my whole body to science. I don't think my position on that has changed. In fact, after reading the book, I think it is less likely I would ever leave my body to science.

Posted by granwood on Sunday, December 13, 2015 at 11:04 am
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