Posted in Psychology & Medicine


Hanging is one of the most popular methods of execution and suicide throughout the ages. It is typically performed by fashioning a noose (most commonly with the eponymous hangman’s knot), placing it around the victim’s (or own) neck. The person then falls from a short height (e.g. dropped from a stand or stepping off a stool), upon which the force of the body pulling down causes the noose to tighten. This can kill a person via two ways. Firstly, if the force of the drop and the knot is strong enough, the sheer force of the noose tightening and the person being suspended by their neck will cause their neck to break. This causes spinal cord injury at the cervical level, where the brainstem lies. When the brainstem is damaged, the person loses control of autonomic processes such as breathing, causing instant death. Secondly, if the neck does not break, the person will be strangulated by the noose. This will kill the person through either choking (from airway obstruction) or brain ischaemia (as the carotid arteries are cut off). Pressure on the carotid artery may also cause something called a carotid reflex, where powerful nervous signals cause the heart to beat so slowly that it stops.

It is said that whether a person dies a quick, clean death via neck fracture or a slow, painful death via strangulation depends on how good the knot is. A hangman’s knot is made up of a loop with a series of coils above it. The more coils there are, the more friction it adds to the knot, making the noose harder to pull closed. A true hangman’s knot is defined as thirteen coils, which provides enough resistance to cause a neck fracture when a person falls. If there are fewer knots than that, the knot will tighten too quickly around the neck and not provide enough resistance to cause a neck fracture. This leads to strangulation, which is far more excruciating and a very inhumane way to die. If there are too many knots, there will be too much resistance and there is a risk of decapitation, leading to a very messy situation.

In forensic medicine, there are certain signs that reveal a victim was hung. For example, the C2 spine (second vertebrae in the neck) will exhibit a hangman’s fracture, where there is fractures on both sides. Fracture of the hyoid bone (a small bone below the chin) is also a classic sign of hanging. There will also be bruises along where the noose was and every sphincter would be open (which leads to immediate voiding of the bowels and bladder at the time of death). If the person died of strangulation rather than neck fracture, they will show signs of asphyxiation, such as blue lips (cyanosis). Another interesting result of hanging is something called a death erection. As the name suggests, it is when a corpse is found with an erection, most likely due to hanging. This is probably caused by the noose crushing the cerebellum, causing a reflex erection. The same phenomenon has been observed in women as well.

Posted in Science & Nature


When you think of lemmings, you are bound to think of two things: a small, round rodent and mass suicide. The reason being, we have been taught as children that lemmings often commit mass suicide. This theory originates from the late 19th century when scientists could not figure out why lemming populations seemed to spike rapidly and then fall just as fast. In 1908, a man named Arthur Mee proposed that they kill themselves, writing so in the Children’s Encyclopaedia. He posited that as an overpopulation of lemmings could devastate the European ecosystem, the lemmings were naturally controlling their own population count. His theory was backed by a documentary made in 1958 called White Wilderness that showed a footage of a herd of lemmings leaping off a cliff to their death.

However, this “fact” has a severe flaw. Lemmings do not commit mass suicide. If you think about it for even a second, the thought of an animal that commits mass suicide (other than human beings) is preposterous as the species would die out. The reason why the lemming population spikes is the same as for mice and rabbits: they pride themselves in extreme reproductive abilities. A female lemming can have up to 80 babies in one year. If the population grows at such an alarming rate, then as explained above, the environment would not be able to support it. This causes the lemming population to plateau, not rising or falling, as there is not enough food to feed all the lemmings. However, due to the shortage of food, the lemmings become desperate and hungry. To find more food, the lemmings begin a migration, but the combination of hunger and being in heat causes them to act irrationally and wild. The result is a massive herd of hungry, stupid lemmings frantically running around all over the place. This leads to some lemmings accidentally slipping off cliffs and drowning in the river while swimming. This is not suicide.

Then what was the strange phenomenon of mass suicide depicted in White Wilderness? The answer is simple: it was staged. The producers tried to replicate Mee’s theory by importing a dozen lemmings and filming them running around the place. Then why did these lemmings commit suicide? Because the producers launched them off a cliff from a turntable.

Posted in Science & Nature

Fermat’s Last Theorem

In the 17th century, a lawyer called Pierre de Fermat conjectured many theorems while reading a mathematics textbook called Arithmetica, written by an ancient Greek mathematician called Diophantus. He wrote his theorems on the margins of the books. After his death, a version of the Arithmetica with Fermat’s theorems was published and many mathematicians checked over Fermat’s proofs. However, there was one theorem that could not be solved. Fermat wrote on the theorem: “I found an amazing proof but it is too large to fit in this margin”.

Fermat’s last theorem is as follows:

No three positive integers x, y, and z can satisfy the equation
xⁿ + yⁿ = zⁿ for any integer value of n greater than two.

For example, x² + y² = z² can be solved using Pythaogorean triplets (e.g. 3, 4, 5) but there are no values for x, y and z that solves x³ + y³ = z³. This theorem remained unsolved for 357 years until Andrew Wiles finally found the proof in 1995.

There are many stories surrounding Fermat’s last theorem, but by far the most interesting is related to suicide. In 1908, a German mathematician called Paul Wolfskehl decided to kill himself after being cold-heartedly rejected by the woman he loved so much. He decided to shoot himself at midnight and in the remaining time started reading some mathematics texts until he found a flaw in Kummer’s theory, which disproved Cauchy and Lamé’s solution (the leading solution at the time. After Kummer’s essay, most mathematicians of the time gave up on Fermat’s last theorem). After researching Kummer’s essay, Wolfskehl found that it was far past midnight and he felt great pride in reinforcing Kummer’s solution. His depression was gone and through mathematics he found new meaning in his life. Wolfskehl, who believed that the theorem saved his life, made a resolution to donate his wealth to whoever solved Fermat’s last theorem, putting up 100,000 marks as a prize. This prize was claimed by Wiles in 1996 (then worth $50,000).


Posted in Science & Nature

Badass Weapons Of Nature: Carpenter Ant

There is an extreme number of ant species, each with a unique characteristic. In the case of carpenter ants, they are famous for their strange defence mechanism.

Some species of carpenter ants, such as the Camponotus saundersi, have warrior ants with very large mandibular glands (many times greater than normal ants). When in a battle it judges that it has no chance of winning, the ant rapidly contracts its abdominal muscles to build pressure. When sufficient pressure is reached within the mandibular glands, it explodes violently, shattering the ant in the process. The glands are filled with a sticky, toxic fluid, which is spread all around where the ant used to be, ensnaring the foes. The inflicted enemies are killed by the poison. 
This is the reason why they are sometimes referred to as exploding ants.

It is a bold, yet fearsome sacrifice for the greater good.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Werther Effect

Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people in the developed world. Every year, approximately one million people take their own lives – far greater than the number of people dying from liver disease, Parkinson’s or even homicide. Despite being one of the most preventable causes of death, suicide still plagues society.
Among the many factors contributing to suicide attempts (mental disorder being the major one), one of the more interesting one is mass media. The effect of mass media on suicide rates can be traced back as far as 1774.

In 1774, Goethe wrote a novel called The Sorrows of Young Werther, where the hero shoots himself after an ill-fated love affair. Shortly after publication, there were many reports of young men who used the same method as Werther to commit suicide. There were even reports of people dressing up like Werther (yellow pants and blue jacket) or leaving the book open to the passage detailing his death next to themselves. After this event, the book was temporarily banned to stop the “epidemic”. Since then, the phenomenon of copycat suicides has been called the Werther effect.

The human brain is trained to think about the information it receives. This applies to suicide as well and people with mental disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder are more prone to suicidal thoughts after hearing stories about it. This effect is amplified by the media tending to glorify or beautify such deaths (as the subject tends to be a celebrity or a fictional character), causing some people to subconsciously believe that suicide is acceptable. In essence, the Werther effect is a form of peer pressure where cognitive dissonance lead people to act irrationally because others in society appear to be doing the same thing.

The Werther effect is surprisingly effective in predicting an increase in suicide attempts after the publication of news regarding suicide. On April 8, 1986, a Japanese singer called Yukko Okada, only 18 at the time, committed suicide by jumping off the seventh floor of her recording studio. Her popularity meant the media were over the story like hungry wolves, reporting the tragic death in every form possible. Within two weeks, 33 young people (including one nine-year old) killed themselves – 21 by jumping from buildings. This episode was dubbed Yukko Syndrome and is one of the most famous cases of the Werther effect in modern society.

Just like in the original case of the Werther effect, the suicide could be fictional and still cause an increase in suicide rates. There was a German television show called Death of a Student that depicted a railway suicide of a young man at the start of every episode. After it began airing, railway suicides by teenage males increased by 175% in Germany. Curiously, there was no increase or decrease in suicide rates via other methods, suggesting that the Werther effect not only affects the choice of method, but also induces suicidal thoughts in those who did not plan on killing themselves.

In 1987, a campaign in Vienna to inform reporters about the Werther effect and the role of the media in suicides led to a dramatic drop in reporting suicides. This was followed by an 80% drop in subway suicide and non-fatal attempts, along with a decrease in the total number of suicides.

The Werther effect is a fine example of how words can kill.