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About "Ask A Scientist!"

On September 17th, 1998 the Ithaca Journal ran its first "Ask A Scientist!" article in which Professor Neil Ashcroft , who was then the director of CCMR, answered the question "What is Jupiter made of?" Since then, we have received over 1,000 questions from students and adults from all over the world. Select questions are answered weekly and published in the Ithaca Journal and on our web site. "Ask A Scientist!" reaches more than 21,000 Central New York residents through the Ithaca Journal and countless others around the world throught the "Ask a Scientist!" web site.

Across disciplines and across the state, from Nobel Prize winning scientist David Lee to notable science education advocate Bill Nye, researchers and scientists have been called on to respond to these questions. For more than seven years, kids - and a few adults - have been submitting their queries to find out the answer to life's everyday questions.

Previous Week's Question Published: 7 November, 2001 Next Week's Question
Science, not fiction reason for burning
Question
What is spontaneous combustion? Is it a myth? What causes it?

Question
Let's start with this: Yes, spontaneous combustion due to paranormal or spiritual forces is a myth. It is not real. It's silly. The spiritualists, who die or nearly die by spontaneous combustion, often smell of good ol' gasoline. But then on the other hand, consider the following.

There have been many, many fires started when combustible materials got hot enough and had enough oxygen around to combust—to start burning. The two classic spontaneous combustion fuels are oily rags and grain dust. People working around the house often get rags full of stuff like paint thinner, varnish, or cleaner for car engine parts on them. This stuff burns like crazy. When a rag is soaked with oily materials, the liquids evaporate and fill spaces like basements and trash cans with fumes: fumes that can burn. Fires start when the fumes get hot. The sun might beat down. Or, a downstairs refrigerator might come on, and the electric motor inside might make just enough of a spark to start the whole place burning. Whew. The same thing has happened where wheat is stored in silos. Along with the parts of the wheat we eat, there is often a lot of fine plant dust. These dust particles are like micro-sized pieces of firewood. They can end up floating around in silos. They're big metal cans sitting in the hot sun. If we're not careful—boom.

Magicians often use a big flame to distract us and make their shows spectacular. You've probably seen the Man Behind the Curtain. The Wizard of Oz loved this trick. So do many of the people who claim to have supernatural powers. I guess once in a while the ol' Big Flame effect catches up with them, and they get burned… spontaneously.

Whenever you hear of people with supernatural powers, remember it may just not be true. Have you ever seen anything just start burning without fuel, oxygen, and heat? No. The same is true for spiritual tricksters. When they get burned, there's a reason. It's not magic; it's science.

Copyright Bill Nye - Nye Labs

17 October 2001