AA's Forensic Science Fiction:Story 1:The mysterious old man
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-Dr. Anil Aggrawal


I met him at a party.

He was surrounded by a few friends and they were all laughing their heads off.

No doubt the booze was showing its effect. The party was entering into its second phase- phase of loosening inhibitions. People would take off their masks during this phase and would show them as their real self.

The man whom I am going to talk about, had a sort of magnetism around him. He was about 5'10", lean and thin, with a thick white hair, a goatee and a glowing face with wrinkles just appearing. From his looks he appeared to be no more than 50, but being a medical man I knew he had crossed sixty. I found myself drifting towards him.

The party looked up at me. Everyone except him knew me.

"Come on Dr. Aggrawal", said one of them,"Meet Mr Quatra her. A company executive."

"Dr. Aggrawal. Professor of forensic medicine", I said and thrust my hand forward.

He took my hand in both of his and pumped them till I thought he wanted them pulped. His hands seemed unusually warm.

"Quatra here. Working with Jaykay exporters."

There was an aura of mystery around him. From his looks, I could guess he was an unusual man. I am not sure what made me think that. Probably an intuition only. I looked again at him. No, I couldn't be wrong. This man had an ace up his sleeve. What?

"Gentlemen! Now I am going to demonstrate something special to you", Mr. Quatra said.

There were some groans around. Then some one said,"No card tricks for God's sake. We have had enough of that. Everyone seems to be demonstrating that in the recreational session of the party"

"Bring me a glass of water", he said, completely ignoring the comment. This engendered some curious looks around. A waiter was passing around with a tray of drinks. Someone picked up a glass of whisky and thrust it towards him.

"No, not alcohol. It could be dangerous. I want just plain water".

Plain water was brought. The old man put the glass of water on the table. Then he looked around with an aura of mystery and then declared,

"Gentlemen, I am going to boil this water without any heat whatsoever"

Again there were may groans around. Then someone said,

"Okay, Okay, we have seen enough of that vacuum business. You simply create some kind of partial vacuum somehow, and since water boils at a lower temperature in a partial vacuum, it begins to boil at the room temperature"

"No, not that at all. That is high school physics. The thing I am going to show you is unexplainable. This is real magic; or perhaps mystery you can say. Definitely it does not involve any science trick."

"Okay show it to us," Goldie said, pouting her beautiful breasts in a low cut blouse forwards for everyone to see. She was perhaps disconcerted that people had started taking more interest in that wrinkled old man than her frontal eminence.

"Gentlemen, I am going to dip my hands in this water", said Mr Quatra, completely ignoring what the young lady had to offer,"and you will all see, it would become warmer."

"Okay go ahead you stuntman", I said to myself,"You can't make it warmer than 370 C, the temperature of the human body. I would be damned if you do that."

He dipped his right hand in water and then closed his eyes as if in meditation. After about a minute, he asked me to dip my index finger in the glass of water. I found the water somewhat warmer. But skin temperature is only around 300 C. If the water was even at, say 340 C, it would appear warmer to everyone. No magic whatsoever.

He continued for some more time and then asked someone else to dip his finger. He immediately retracted the finger in amazement.

"It's warm, very warm!" he exclaimed.

"Fools!" I thought, "He is keeping his hand long enough till the water comes to 370 C. Water at this temperature would seem warm to any human being, for the simple reason that skin is at a lower temperature. Water is getting the heat from his blood. Not so easy to do for every human being however. May be he has done some practice and can apparently do it with much ease."

After 2 minutes he invited me to dip my fingers in it again. I advanced my fingers to the bowl quite nonchalantly and dipped them deep inside the bowl.

Immediately I had to jerk them out. The water was unbearably hot. I found myself sucking at my fingers.

Soon fumes started appearing at the surface of water. Everyone of us had had enough of that. We asked him to stop.

With a victorious grin, that almost reached his ears, he took off his hand, and mopped it with a handkerchief.

"Can you give me your card?" I asked him, still dazed.

"Sure" he dished out his visiting card from his wallet. After that he left quietly.



A battery of tests conducted on him showed some unusual results. Thankfully, next day when I had 'phoned him and had asked him if he could make himself available for some lab tests, he readily agreed.

Radiographs of the blood vessels of his right hand (after injecting a radio opaque dye in his brachial artery) showed an unusual rich network of arteries there. That was one reason why he could bring so much warmth in his right hand. Still, causing water to boil? That couldn't be explained.

For a whole week I couldn't sleep. My friends at the party asked me to forget the incident. "People can do a lot of things with yoga" they said. But I shook them off.

Finally I called him one day. "Mr Quatra", I said," I want to take a few cells from your hypothalamus. Would you allow me to do that? It is a small area of the brain sitting at the base of the skull. I would use the nasal route. Don't worry. Nothing would happen to you. With advanced techniques available now, I would just pick up about fifty odd cells which is about one millionth of the total cells you have in your hypothalamus."

"Do whatever you like doctor", he said gleefully. "I am all for the advancement of science".

I studied the cells for 2 weeks. I did everything possible on them; histology, histochemistry, physiology, radio-nitrogen tagging, everything; but didn't get any clues. Nothing had perturbed me more in life than this problem.

Then one night when I was sleeping and dreaming, suddenly the solution came to my mind like the flash of a lightning. I immediately woke up with a start, and thought of the solution from every angle. The more I thought about it, the more I got convinced that I had indeed found the correct solution. So confident was I that I decided to present the results of my findings to the next international science conference I was attending in Geneva.

Mr. Quatra was a mutant!

Which means he had an altered thermostat.

Well, I won't go in details. You all know about hypothalamus and built-in thermostats. The hypothalamus of all human beings has a built-in thermostat which is "pre-programmed" to keep the body temperature at 370 C. If there is cold outside, one would start shivering to generate more heat in order to maintain this temperature. On the other hand if it is too hot outside, one would start sweating. Like the thermostat of an electric appliance, it is the hypothalamic thermostat which decides the human body temperature. In all human beings this thermostat is set at a temperature of 370 C. But this man could apparently set his thermostat at a higher level- at will. The biochemistry of his hypothalamic cells led me to that.

To be sure, setting of the body's thermostat at higher level is not abnormal. It happens in ordinary day-to-day life. Bacterial toxins set it at a higher level. That is why one gets fever in bacterial infections. In almost all infections- malaria, pneumonia, typhoid- it would be set at a higher level and then the body's temperature would rise. No man could however do it at will. What was most astounding was that this man could apparently do it at will. Some kind of chemical - a hormone probably- would be released from his brain and set it at a higher level. The mystery was that his whole body temperature would not rise appreciably. Only his right hand's temperature would rise. Admittedly this stumped me. May be a good concentration of capillaries there had something to do with it.

I presented the findings of my investigation in the international conference the next month. But contrary to my expectations, the paper was booed over. It was taken to be a paper in pseudo-science. I swallowed the insult with a dismal heart.



Next week I got the startling news that Mr Quatra was dead. He was found burnt in his study. The police was suspecting homicide. That is why they called for me immediately.

I visited the place at once. The scene was familiar to me- in fact to all forensic experts.

The torso had burnt beyond recognition. In fact there was merely ash where the torso should have been. The legs below the level of knees were almost unharmed. My brain started ticking...

Spontaneous human combustion!

Undoubtedly. This was the classic picture of Spontaneous human combustion. I assured the police officers, it was neither a case of homicide, nor suicide. It was a rare phenomenon, seen once in a century probably.

And then I left his house and pressed down the accelerator viciously. I had to reach my lab soon. Lot of work was pending. Besides, I wanted to forget this witch of a man. But somehow my brain was going back to Mr Quatra again and again. Was there something I was missing completely? A missing link perhaps? One which could link all the bizarre facts nicely and logically? My brain felt as if it was full of jig-saw puzzles, needing to be adjusted in their proper order. Suddenly the solution came to my mind. It gave me such a shudder, I lurched forward. I couldn't help it. The car swerved here and there violently till I slammed over the brakes. That jig-saw puzzle! It had been solved! Suddenly all the pieces seemed to fall together in their right places. That gave me this unexpected shivering.

Spontaneous human combustion is an unexplained phenomenon for many centuries. Charles Dickens even mentioned the phenomenon in one of his novels. Various theories have been advanced but none seemed satisfactory. There have been for instance, theories regarding building up of high concentrations of combustible substances in the body; high phosphorus levels in bodies, high alcohol levels in alcoholics and the like. Well, these theories do look attractive, but they don't explain everything properly. If you dip a piece of meat in alcohol and burn it, it would burn only till the alcohol is present in the piece of meat. After that the fire would extinguish. Then there are theories regarding high voltages being built inside the body by walking on things like carpets and so on.

But now I knew what really goes on.

These people are really mutants. And very rare ones at that. For one thing that explains the rarity of the phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion. The mutation enables the affected persons to set their hypothalamic thermostats at a higher level- at will. Even at levels of 3000 C as in the case of Mr Quatra. You may find it unbelievable but I have the biochemistry reports to show you just that. Some of these people can do it at will while others can't, but in all cases this thermostat gets set at a higher level automatically on a very cold chilly night (perhaps to keep them warm). That's why you get spontaneous combustions on cold chilly nights only. Usually however, their thermostats would be set normally. Raising the thermostat to 3000 C would mean that the body would catch fire, as fat catches fire at 2930 C. That is the gist of my whole theory.

I know questions are lurking in your minds. What is the exact biochemistry? How is the thermostat set at a higher level? Why would only the hand get warmer and not the rest of the body? Well, I can't explain all that in this short report which I am writing merely because Mr. Suneel Galgotia, the publisher of this book requested me to do so. In any case they are merely trifling details. The main gist should satisfy most people. Even then, I would not disappoint the scientifically minded people. They can fruitfully scan through the following papers, which I wrote subsequently.

  1. Aggrawal A. A Biochemical explanation of Spontaneous Human Combustion. New England Journal of Medicine. 311: 1072-1074, 1999
  2. Aggrawal A. Spontaneous Human Combustion. Do the thermostats go awry? British Medical Journal. 321: 72-87,1999

I hope these should satisfy the more scientifically minded of you. Thanks.

This story was published in Published in Spandan (Maulana Azad Medical College's Magazine) 1989-90 on Pages 43-46

Web www.geradts.com



  Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Websites  > Forensic Science Fiction - Main page  > Anil Aggrawal's Forensic Science Fiction Stories - Cumulative index  > Story 1 : The Mysterious old man (you are here)
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