STRANGE BUT TRUE- Body farms: Where the cadavers sink and swim


Q. Ever heard of the world-renowned "dead body farm"?–D. Frankenstein

A. At the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, on secluded parts of the campus, bodies of human donors are left to decompose naturally– some in the sun, some in the shade, some buried or wrapped in coverings, says Cornelia Reichert in New Scientist magazine. The aim is to gain information to help police and pathologists solve potential homicide cases, where cadavers turn up in various places and under suspicious circumstances.

One common place is along a coast, possibly a suicide or an accident victim. Often, there is little that forensic medicine can offer, leaving bereaved relatives with tragic uncertainty. Hence forensic entomologist Gail Anderson has set up an underwater version of the body farm, using pigs (humanely slaughtered) to study the decomposition process. Contrary to what happens to bodies on land, where the head usually goes first, marine fauna will leave the head and face until last. So when a body bearing facial wounds but otherwise unharmed washes up, Anderson is confident that foul play was involved.

"It's a macabre project," Anderson concedes, "but one of potentially immense value to the families of those lost at sea."

Q. We humans have many a way of dealing with our aches and pains, ranging from going to a doctor to cursing. But there's a hipper modality that needs no prescription, has no unwanted side effects, and offends no one's ears. Hospitals are aware of this computer connection, helpful for coping with stress, improving memory and sleep, even speeding recovery after surgery. So, best not to write this one off.–Hippocrates

A. Right, it's blogging, the newest thing in the healing e-arts. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts, and feelings, says Jessica Wapner in Scientific American.

A modern electronic version of ancient journal writing, blogging is basically a way of complaining to potentially like-minded people, and as such is self-administered therapy, a sort of personal placebo. This self-expression has even been found to help cancer patients, who feel markedly better both mentally and physically afterward, compared with those not writing. Hospitals have started hosting patient-authored blogs on their Web sites, encouraging a community of connected recoverers.

Q. Why, if the Bible is taken literally, was a miracle required to keep Noah's ark afloat in the Flood?–F. Abraham

A. The book of Genesis says "all the high hills that were under the whole heaven were covered." This seems to mean there were 10,000 to 20,000 feet of water, or more than half a billion cubic miles, says Temple University mathematician John Allen Paulos in Innumeracy. Since 40 days and 40 nights computes to 960 hours, an average 15 feet of water must have fallen per hour– "enough to sink an aircraft carrier, let alone an ark with thousands of animals on board."

Q. Two thousand years ago, early travelers noted on long journeys north or south that the old familiar stars near the northern or southern horizon each night couldn't be seen. It was also widely observed that when a ship goes out to sea, its hull disappears first, then the lower mast, finally the mast's top. And then there were those dramatic lunar eclipses, looking like a pie eaten away down to a crescent. Moreover, regardless of whether the moon was high or low when an eclipse occurred, the same arc shape appeared. From these– plus the round sun and round moon and round canopy of the sky itself– the brainy ancient Greeks came to a conclusion. What was the conclusion?

A. Not only that the Earth is round, answered Isaac Asimov in How Did We Find Out the Earth Is Round? but it is round in three dimensions: an enormous ball. But exactly how big? The geographer Eratosthenes estimated this circa 240 B.C.E.

Knowing that an upright rod cast no shadow at noon on June 21 in the Egyptian city of Syene (modern Aswan), but 500 miles due north in Alexandria (where he worked) it did cast a shadow of a certain height, he correctly calculated that the Earth's circumference is about 25,000 miles!


Send strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at