Thursday, October 11, 2007

Death special: How does it feel to die? - being-human - 13 October 2007 - New Scientist

Death special: How does it feel to die? - being-human - 13 October 2007 - New Scientist

Here's a handy little article from the New Scientist, which answers some of those long asked-questions, like: how long do you stay conscious after having your head cut off?

Some things to ponder on the long, dark nights: 55% of UK drownings occur within three metres of safety; 40% of the victims of fatal house fires are killed by toxic fumes before they even wake up; and that there had been one fatal depressurisation in space - the Soyuz-11 mission in 1971 that led to three deaths.

Sweet dreams.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

London Air, Killed By

There is a corner of Westmister Abbey which holds the tombstone of Thomas Parr, buried there in November 1635, at the age of 152. Yes, 152. Thomas Parr, or Old Parr as he was better known, apparently lived from 1483 to 1635, when he was brought to London to meet Charles I. The experience killed him.

Old Parr ascribed his longevity to his vegetarian diet and strict morals. His strict morals didn't stop him having an affair at the age of 100. He was apparently bored with his wife, whom he had married at the age of 80. As penance for his affair he was made to stand in the parish church, draped in a white sheet.

He lived in Winnington, near Shrewsbury, on the estates of the Earl of Arundel. Westminster Abbey says: “A diet of green cheese, onions, coarse bread, buttermilk or mild ale (cider on special occasions) and no smoking kept Thomas healthy.” Considering that commercial tobacco production did not start in Virginia until 1609 he couldn't have taken up smoking until he was 126. If I'm still alive at 126, I'm going to smoke for all I'm worth. Sod the coarse bread and buttermilk.

Most of the information we have about Old Parr comes from John Taylor's 1635 pamphlet: The Old, Old, Very Old Man or the Age and Long Life of Thomas Parr. Which is a boring, boring, very boring read.

Not content with outliving one wife, Old Parr married again, when he was 122. He lived through the reigns of ten kings, from Edward IV to Charles I. He was born before Columbus sailed, and yet, when he died, the Massachusetts Bay Colony was already exiling people (who would go on to found Rhode Island).

The Earl of Arundel was told about him as he was on his estates in 1635. He decided that the best thing to do would be to take Old Parr to London, to show him off like the freak he was. So, he dragged the blind 152-year old (he'd already been married to his second wife for 30 years) up to Court to show him off, and generally hold him up to ridicule.

He met Charles I, who asked him witty questions like: "You have lived longer than other men. What have you done more than other men?" Old Parr refrained from answering “Shat.” but referred to his penance instead. He quickly became a favourite object to coo over and patronise at court, and had his portrait painted.

Unfortunately, the change in atmosphere and diet (and possibly having to meet Charles I) led to Old Parr's dropping dead within a few weeks of arriving in London. The post-mortem was carried by Dr William Harvey, who discovered the circulation of blood, but could find none circulating in Old Parr. Apparently, the fine wines and London air did for him.

Old Parr's advice for living a long life was: "Keep your head cool by temperance and your feet warm by exercise. Rise early, go soon to bed, and if you want to grow fat keep your eyes open and your mouth shut". This all sounds very boring, but probably an ideal way to get to 152.

If, however, you prefer carousing with courtiers into the small hours, life at Court, enormous meals and having your portrait painted all the time, you're just asking for it.

Poor old Old Parr. He was done for by not following his own advice, and being seduced by life at Charles I's Court, having lived to 152. Either that or his birth records got mixed up with his grandfather's.

(PS – This is one explanation of his great longevity, but it would still mean that Old Parr was over 100, no mean feat in the 17th century.)

Friday, March 02, 2007

Donkey Eating Figs, Laughing At

It's late in the afternoon. You've spent all day debating both sides of an argument and drinking to keep your strength up. You step out into the evening sun, which is a lot brighter and hotter than you remember it being. There's a tinny noise somewhere inside your ears you can't get rid of.

Look over there! There's your donkey! Stupid, old donkey. He eats grass. You know what, you bet the donkey would like some wine, too. Yes, good donkey. The donkey's so stupid it can't even stand up properly now. Ha! You didn't want to stand up properly either.

Figs! That's what always goes well on a stomach full of wine. Figs! Fi-i-igs! Must. Find Figs. Aha! You've got loads of figs, figs galore. It's figs all round. Some for you, and some for...hey! The donkey's asleep now. Probably all that grass it ate. What it needs is a kick in the head and some figs. Figs!

Go on, eat the figs.

Stupid donkey can't even eat figs properly. Look! Look at the way he's eating those figs! That's not the way you eat figs! Only a moron could possibly eat figs like that, you dumb donkey! Dumb ass! Ha! Dumb ass! That's the dumbest way in the world to eat...

As far as we can tell these were the last thoughts of one of the ancient world's most talented philosophers. Chrysippus was a man so supremely confident in his abilities that he used to argue both sides of a debate for fun, and said when asked who should instruct a friend's son: “Me; for if I thought any philosopher excelled me, I would myself become his pupil."

After the death of Cleanthes in 252 BC he was the foremost of the stoics. The Stoics placed a great emphasis on not being led by their passions, but by their reason.

The first of the Stoics was Zeno of Citium (who strangled himself to death because he had stubbed his toe, thus earning himself a post on this blog of his own), and the Stoics got their name from the porch ('stoa poikile') on which he used to teach. And from which he used to shoot varmints and critters.

The Stoics were ahead of their time in believing that all of mankind were expressions of the same universal spirit, and they stressed brotherly love and helping each other. They emphasised the individual's spiritual well-being, and were harsh critics of superstition. The philosopher most important in shaping Stoicism, after Zeno, was Chrysippus (who got into it after some sort of land deal had fallen through in Tarsus, meaning that he had to get a job as a philosopher in Athens).

Chrysippus wrote an enormous amount, reportedly, over 500 lines a day. He is meant to have written more than 700 works, but all of them are lost to us now, except for excerpts that were quoted by other people. He was perhaps the most voluble and eloquent exponent of the virtues of self-control.

And yet he died drunk, laughing at the stupid way a donkey ate figs.

I like this. I like the fact that a man who devoted his life to demonstrating how passion should never be allowed to control reason, died laughing.

Most people on this site dies grotesque and hideous deaths, notable mainly for the way they shock us into conceiving of our own mortality. Not Chrysippus. He had his amphora of wine in his hands, and a funny-looking animal in front of him. He could never have coped with Youtube, or being emailed attachments of kittens in pint glasses.

Here's to Chrysippus, and may we all die laughing.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

First post

This is test, to make sure that everything is working, in preparation for the big off...