The Lost Tale of Pompeii: Brain Glass
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The Lost Tale of Pompeii: Brain Glass



By Valentina Ménager

Usually, our brains turn into soap as we decompose. Rarely do they turn into glass. This is what happened when Mount Vesuvius erupted over the Italian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum two thousand years ago, killing thousands of people and permanently encasing them in a thick coat of ash. 

In the 1960s, a human in the Collegium Augustinum (an ancient college in Herculaneum) was found lying on a wooden bed, buried by volcanic ash. Scientists soon discovered that the remains of his brain had been replaced by glossy clustered material. This was bizarre—archeologists usually find that the remains of human cerebral tissues (the brain, brain stem, and portions of the spine) turn into soap.

They tested the fragments and found that the glassy material inside the skull contained several proteins that are found in human brain tissues. This includes fatty acids (adipic and margaric), which are components of human hair and fat. How did this happen?

Well, the charred wooden bed he was found on was estimated to have reached temperatures up to 520°C (968°F). Scientists hypothesize that this extreme heat led to the process of vitrification. First, his body fat ignited and was vaporized into soft tissue. But after the explosion, there was a rapid drop in temperature. So the tissue was burned and then quickly cooled down. This is how glass is made.

Note: A more detailed explanation of vitrification is that the triglycerides (main constituents of body fat and vertebrates) in the victims are converted to glycerol (a fat component found in toothpaste, mouthwash, shaving creams, and soaps).