It's been one of those pre-apocalyptic kind of weeks, between the (bogus) doomsday clock being placed the closest to midnight it's ever been and the 1% at Davos promising to tackle climate change with all the clarity and sincerity when mumble-guessing their housekeeper's full name. A perfect time, then, for a new bit of science trivia to remind us of the terrifying things an apocalypse can do to our body, like turn our brains into exploding shards of glass.
The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE has been seared into our minds as one of the most horrific cataclysms in human history. But that's not the only thing Vesuvius seared in there. An article published this week in The New England Journal of Medicine posits that volcanic fallout can vitrify our brains, i.e. blow them into glass. This is based on the findings of obsidian-like glass inside the skull located in the downtown Herculaneum located Collegium Augustalium, which was evacuated by all except a 25-year-old guard who was likely still asleep in his bed -- and must've been a real morning grouch for no one to wake him up even during the apocalypse.
New England Journal of Medicine / Pier Paolo
While first thought to be just shrapnel, modern analysis has found specific proteins inside the glass that correspond with brain tissue, making this the first-ever glass fossil of any brain, human or animal, ever discovered. Like the glassmaking process, Herculaneum was first hit with the incredible heat of a pyroclastic surge (which can get up to 520 degrees Celsius or 968 degrees Fahrenheit) only to then cool down rapidly during the subsequent ash murder clouds. While that's still somewhere below the temperatures needed for actual glassblowing or sculpting, it was enough to turn a human brain into something that would not look out of sorts in your great-aunt's display collection of Swarovski crystals.
This also strengthens the study's co-author that the pyroclastic surge didn't just vaporize people's brains and organs, but made their heads explode like a melon in a microwave. And if that sounds horrifying, another study published this week wants to remind that that's the best-case scenario. Those who managed to evacuate Herculaneum the town and found shelter likely suffered an even worse fate, claims research published in Cambridge University's Antiquity. People found in the bunk-like boathouses at the town's shoreline managed to escape part of the incredible heat of the pyroclastic flow, but that just put them in a temperature range that turned their shelter into a makeshift oven, making it that they likely "likely suffocated rather than died of the heat" and were then baked into a batch of well-preserved research material.
And sure, while volcanoes contribute (surprisingly) little to either the climate emergency or our other man-made apocalypse scenarios, it's always good to keep in mind what heat can do to the body as some tanned idiot waffles on about climate hoaxes or starting wars with nuclear-capable countries.
For more weird tangents and info on his new glassmaking workshop "Blowing Corpses," do follow Cedric on Twitter.