Ivory Towers: The IgNorance of execution methods

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The Independent Culture
THAT splendid publication, the Journal of Irreproducible Results, recently held its IgNobel Prize ceremony 'for achievements that cannot, or should not, be reproduced'. Named after Alfred Nobel's considerably lesser known and justly neglected brother, Ig, the IgNobel Prizes reward pioneering research in areas that other awards prefer to IgNore.

This year, they gave awards in 11 categories including Psychology (for a paper concluding that people who believe they were kidnapped by aliens from outer space are probably right), Biology (for a paper published in 1970 under the title 'Salmonella Excretion in Joy-Riding Pigs) and Literature (for a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1993, which broke new ground by having 100 times as many authors as pages.

Robert Faid of Greenville, South Carolina, was elected the Mathematics IgNobel Laureate for calculating the exact odds that Mikhail Gorbachev is the Antichrist. (They are, for anyone interested, 8,606,091,751,882 - 1).

Our own favourite is the award for Visionary Technology to the inventors of a device that enables its owner to watch television while driving a car. The prize is shared by the Michigan State Legislature who, on 6 June 1991, passed a law making it legal to do so.

Regarding another award winner, the paper 'Surgical Management of an Epidemic of Penile Amputations in Siam', by Kasian Bhanganada, Tu Chayavatana, Chumporn Pongnumkul, Anunt Tonmukayakul, Piyasakol Sakolsatayadorn, Krit Komaratal and Henry Wilde, in the American Journal of Surgery, 1983, we prefer not to go into details.

The Journal of Irreproducible Results may be obtained from: Wisdom Simulators, P O Box 380853, Cambridge, MA 02238, USA. An annual subscription costs dollars 43 (or pounds 62 if you are a library).

None of the papers mentioned in that journal, however, have the terminally irreproducible significance of 'The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods' by Harold Hillman, which appeared in Perception 1993, Volume 22, pages 745 - 753.

As Dr Hillman writes: 'It is difficult to know how much pain the person being executed feels or for how long, because many of the signs of pain are obscured by the procedure'. He also alludes to the considerable experimental difficulty in obtaining reliable assessments of the pain suffered from the subjects themselves.

His paper begins by observing that: 'In 1989 execution was carried out by shooting in 86 countries, hanging in 78, stoning in 7, beheading in 6 and electrocution, intravenous injection and gassing in the United States only.'

Discussing the physiology and pathology of each procedure, he points out that: 'Persons hit by bullets feel as if they have been punched - pain comes later if the victim survives long enough to feel it.' Hanging can be painful, if the drop is not accurately calculated to cause a rapid fracture-dislocation of the neck, and even if it is: 'the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve probably continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them'.

Stoning can be very painful, while beheading, according to experiments on anaesthetised sheep, may result in the brain continuing to function for about 14 seconds after both carotid arteries have been severed. For humans, the comparable time is believed to be at least 7 seconds.

Electrocution (2,000 - 3,000 volts for a couple of seconds followed by another jolt a few seconds later if the heart is still beating) can char the brain and the cyanide poisoning of gassing has a number of unpleasant side-effects.

Dr Hillman concludes: 'All of the methods for executing people, with the possible exception of intravenous injection, are likely to cause pain.' He suggests that there can also be psychological damage.