I vant to be alone

Why dead bodies float face-down

Slate runs a column called “The Explainer”, which picks an interesting question every few days and offers a quick, succint answer. This week’s question noted the preponderance of pictures of floating dead bodies in New Orleans, and asked: “Why are bodies in the water always facedown?” Because of some quirks of anatomy, chemistry and physics, as it turns out:

A cadaver in the water starts to sink as soon as the air in its lungs is replaced with water. Once submerged, the body stays underwater until the bacteria in the gut and chest cavity produce enough gas — methane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon dioxide — to float it to the surface like a balloon. (The buildup of methane, hydrogen sulfide, and other gases can take days or weeks, depending on a number of factors.) At first, not all parts of the body inflate the same amount: The torso, which contains the most bacteria, bloats more than the head and limbs. The most buoyant body parts rise first, leaving the head and limbs to drag behind the chest and abdomen. Since arms, legs, and the head can only drape forward from the body, corpses tend to rotate such that the torso floats facedown, with arms and legs hanging beneath it.

That is both extremely interesting and thoroughly disgusting. Though it’s a pale shadow of the following paragraph in that “Explainer”, which discusses “refloats” — a concept of sufficient grotesquerie that I’m totally not going to excerpt it. Click and read it yourself, assuming you’ve already eaten lunch.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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