[Marxism] Some people will believe anything.

Calvin Broadbent calvinbroadbent at hotmail.com
Sat Jun 5 09:15:04 MDT 2004


Is there lightness after death?

According to a new film, we lose 21 grams at the moment of death. Ian Sample 
looks for the truth

Thursday February 19, 2004

The Guardian


  Who would have thought it? At the exact moment of death, you, me, and 
everyone else, will lose precisely 21g in weight. Just like that. Gone. I 
know because it says so on the poster for Alejandro González Iñárritu's new 
movie called, as it happens, 21 Grams and starring Benicio del Torro, Sean 
Penn and Naomi Watts.
The movie's promotional blurb moves quickly to quash those tempted to 
guestimate how much body fluid and gas one might expel in a parting gesture 
to cause a 21g drop in weight by inquiring: "Is it a person's soul that 
constitutes those twenty one grams?" (Quick answer: no.)

"I've been dealing with death for 45 years and I can say with some 
confidence there's nothing in it," says Robert Stern, a pathologist at the 
University of California, San Francisco.

So where does the 21g assertion come from? Who are the "they" who say we 
lose this amount as soon as our hearts squeeze their final beats and the 
electrical storms in our brains flicker and fade?

The origin of the 21g figure can be traced to Duncan MacDougall, a doctor 
working in Haverhill, Massachusetts in the early 1900s. MacDougall had a 
keen fascination with death and spent part of his career on an almost 
obsessive hunt for evidence of the soul. He thought that if humans had a 
soul, it must exist in the body as some kind of material. And that material 
must weigh something.

MacDougall set out to test his theory with what was an excruciatingly bad 
experiment. In 1907, the year Einstein applied the laws of gravity to his 
special theory of relativity, MacDougall published his findings in American 
Medicine.

MacDougall's paper reveals as much about the author as it does about the 
quality of work that could get into medical journals at the time. MacDougall 
describes how he set about converting a hospital bed into a rudimentary 
balance so he could measure a patient's weight change as they died. The bed 
balance was sensitive, so to prevent his soon-to-be-dead patients from 
messing up his data, MacDougall hunted around for people who were dying of 
tuberculosis. As he noted: "It seemed to me best to select a patient dying 
with a disease that produces great exhaustion, the death occurring with 
little or no muscular movement, because in such a case, the beam could be 
kept more perfectly at balance and any loss occurring readily noted." In 
other words, there was to be no flailing around that could upset the scales.

In all, MacDougall managed to recruit a mere six dying people for his study, 
four of whom had tuberculosis. In turn, each was tucked up in his modified 
bed and their weight monitored until some minutes after their death. Any 
bowel movements or urination at death were fine, at least so far as the 
experiment was concerned, as it all stayed on the bed.

With a nod to best scientific practice, MacDougall then repeated the study 
with 15 dogs, which according to his religious beliefs, were not blessed 
with souls. It's not clear how MacDougall managed to get his dogs to die 
without rocking the bed, but some scientists suspect a nasty cocktail of 
drugs was used.

At the end of his foray into science, MacDougall declared that humans lost 
up to three-fourths of an ounce upon death, a figure that doesn't have quite 
the same ring as 21g, the metric equivalent. The dogs, he said, lost 
nothing. What else might it be if not the weight of the soul departing, he 
asked.

Before going public with his findings, MacDougall wanted to make sure that 
his patients' last breaths were not skewing his data, so he clambered on to 
the bed, (presumably once the last patient was removed and the sheets had 
been changed) and spent a few minutes exhaling. He then got a colleague to 
do the same thing. Neither managed to shift the balance enough to account 
for the weight loss MacDougall reported.

Despite the poor accuracy of his scales, the huge variability in his data, 
and the all-too-few people studied, MacDougall's experiment was also 
frustrated by the tricky skill of pinpointing the exact time of death. He 
was repeatedly challenged as to why the weight change on death appeared to 
take longer in some patients than others. To rebut the doubters, MacDougall 
wrote: "The soul's weight is removed from the body virtually at the instant 
of the last breath, though in persons of sluggish temperament, it may remain 
in the body for a full minute." He declared later in the paper: "Here we 
have experimental demonstration that a substance capable of being weighed 
does leave the body at death."

MacDougall's work was written up in the New York Times, which also covered 
his hope, some years later, to take a photo of the soul using x-rays. 
Despite being recorded in the paper that gives us all the news that's fit to 
print, his work is viewed with palpable embarrassment now. "It's simply not 
taken seriously," says Stern.

Gruesomely, Stern points out that dead bodies lose a lot of weight over 
time. Minute, intercellular structures called lysosomes release enzymes that 
break the body down into gases and liquid. "That's why, when you have mass 
graves, you can get explosions because of all the gas build-up," he says. 
"Just think if our bodies didn't break down. Everyone who had ever lived on 
the face on the Earth would still be here." Now, that would make a good 
movie.


Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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