Skip to main content

Physicist Describes 45 Gruesome Ways to Die (or Not)

You probably wouldn't survive a stroll on the sun's surface, or jumping into a black hole, but how exactly would those actions end your life? (Image credit: Penguin Books)

Ever wonder what it would feel like to be hit by a meteorite?

"You might expect to be squashed, but you would actually die some tens of seconds before the rock hit you," likely from the blast of face-melting heat generated by the meteor's approach, according to the book, "And Then You're Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed By a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara" (Penguin Books, 2017).

Death comes for us all — it's an unpleasant truth, and one many humans don't like to think about too much, particularly when it comes to the details of how it might happen. That said, there is something morbidly fascinating about the prospect of exploring the most outlandish, unusual and even impossible circumstances that could cause your demise. [Top 10 Leading Causes of Death]

Writer Cody Cassidy and physicist Paul Doherty co-authored a book that provides all the lurid details of various unusual — and horrible — ways to die, and the questions they pose range from the somewhat plausible (What would happen if you were stuck in a walk-in freezer?) to the wildly unlikely (What would happen if you skydived from outer space?) Doherty sat down with Live Science to divulge the inspiration for some of the gruesome fare collected in the book.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Live Science: Did you find as you were writing the book that you and Cody Cassidy had different preferences for certain types of horrible-death scenario?

Paul Doherty: I'm a physics professor, so I leaned toward the physics-related stuff, and I'm an outdoor enthusiast, so I wanted input into the outdoor things. Cody also liked the sporty ones, and he was more willing to go into ecologically triggered death. Those challenged me — I had to go out of my field a little bit and do more research. But we had fun doing it together. We want people to enjoy the book and to be able to at least read it at lunch — so, some gruesome ways to die were skipped on purpose. [The 18 Biggest Unsolved Mysteries in Physics]

Live Science: I'll probably regret asking this, but what was so gruesome that you had to leave it out?  

Doherty: There's a great book called "Young Men and Fire" [University of Chicago Press, 1992], and the author's description of death by burning and the effects of fire on the body — well, you'll notice we skipped fire in the book. We thought it was just a little upsetting, because it actually might happen. We tended toward things that were fantastic ways to die, or out-of-the-ordinary ways to die that aren't likely to happen to you, so you're interested in them without being terrified. [The Odds of Dying…]

Live Science: But the book does describe being attacked by a swarm of bees — and that's a very real fear for many people.

Doherty: It can be, but it's fairly rare. We give you the number of bee stings that might actually be lethal; I think with 500 bee stings there's a 50 percent chance of death. That would take a hive of bees and they would have to be pretty upset with you.

There was one guy who had more than 1,500 bee stings — his face was black with stingers! — but they were spread out over time so his body could handle all the toxins. He was in water trying to dive away from the bees, and every time he came up, they'd hit him again, so — yikes! Of course, that's an exception. But you should definitely be respectful of beehives.

It turns out that when you're doing a book, the boundaries are interesting places. Here's a topic: Fire, where's our boundary? Or bees, where's our boundary? Making those choices really was an interesting part of writing.

Live Science: Where did the scenarios come from?

Doherty: There are 45 scenarios in the book — we started out with 200. We have a lot of nerdy friends, and we had dinner conversations where we said, "We're thinking about writing this book," and our friends — being nerds — said, "Can magnetism kill you? Going for a naked moonwalk? Taking a base jump from the International Space Station?" They'd keep coming up with these ideas. And we'd see if we could turn the death into something educational, something you could learn from. Or if they contained nuggets of really cool history — if we could find someone who died from it, or who didn't die — we could tell you their story.

Live Science: What would you say to the people who are intrigued by this topic, but at the same time might be a little bit afraid of it?

Doherty: Some of these people actually survived what happened to them, and it's not as bad as you think. If you read the one about what happens if your airplane window pops out, we gave case studies where most of the people survived. When this happens, the airplane fills with white stuff that people may think is smoke, but it's actually clouds — the moisture-rich gas in your body comes out when the window ruptures and the pressure drops, and condenses into a cloud. So, if this happens to you on an airplane and you think that you see smoke from a bomb, that's going to terrify you more than if you realize, "Oh, it's just a cloud formation — and most of the time people survive." That's a reassuring thing.

Whistling past the graveyard is a classic human thing to do. By facing death in ways that you're not going to encounter — falling into a black hole, stepping out of a submarine at the bottom of the Mariana Trench — those ideas of facing death in ways that were slightly humorous or exotic help people to think about their own death in a way that's satisfying.

So, I'd say, read the book! There are some terrifying things in there — just like life — but there's also hope. And if one of these things happens to you, maybe we'll even help you survive.

Original article on Live Science.

Mindy Weisberger
Mindy Weisberger

Mindy Weisberger is a Live Science senior writer covering a general beat that includes climate change, paleontology, weird animal behavior, and space. Mindy holds an M.F.A. in Film from Columbia University; prior to Live Science she produced, wrote and directed media for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Her videos about dinosaurs, astrophysics, biodiversity and evolution appear in museums and science centers worldwide, earning awards such as the CINE Golden Eagle and the Communicator Award of Excellence. Her writing has also appeared in Scientific American, The Washington Post and How It Works Magazine.