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Chemistry Of Breatharianism And The Life And Times Of 'We'

by Faith Hayden
July 23, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 30

Credit: World Aquarium
R.I.P.: Newscripts says good-bye ... and good-bye
Credit: World Aquarium
R.I.P.: Newscripts says good-bye ... and good-bye

The Life and Times of 'We'

Newscripts is sad to report that "We," the eight-year-old, two-headed albino RAT SNAKE covered in the Dec. 4, 2006, issue of C&EN, has died of natural causes in its home at the World Aquarium, St. Louis.

We was born in April 1999 to Kevin Bryant, an Indiana-based snake breeder. The snake then moved to the World Aquarium, where it was looked after by caretaker Leonard Sonnenschein for the rest of its life.

We was the only hermaphroditic snake known to exist, although the reptile itself wasn't aware of its unique situation. When We was young, the two heads—having two distinct personalities—would frequently fight over food. The female head was primarily the dominant one, often dragging around her male counterpart all over the exhibit.

Over the years, We became somewhat of a mascot for the aquarium and was visited by more than a million people. We enjoyed eating baby mice and would prop one head up against the corner of the exhibit to sleep, while the other head nestled into the ground to get comfortable.

We leaves behind Golden Girls, a two-headed female black rat snake that We had previously attempted to mate with. Although the pair—or foursome—failed to create any two-headed kin, We lives on in a memorial at the aquarium. A replica of the snake is currently on display, along with letters and articles from all over the world about the reptile. Sonnenschein expects the preserved remains to be up for viewing by October.

Chemistry of Breatharianism

If I were to have a last meal choice, it would probably consist of sushi, cheese fries (with Ranch dressing), and soft-shell crabs. For Ph.D. chemist Michael Werner, however, it was potato salad and a slice of cake on New Year's Eve 2001.

Werner, 58, is a former chemistry professor and father of three from Brunswick, Germany, who NO LONGER EATS—at all. But before you go and label Werner anorexic, chew on this; he claims to practice breatharianism, a diet based on the belief that a person can be sustained largely on air—carbon dioxide, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen—alone.

For more than six years, Werner has only consumed coffee, water, fruit juice, and the occasional glass of wine, along with his daily helping of sunlight and air. He has written a book on his controversial practice called "Life from Light," in which he documents his journey.

Werner might believe in this program, but science sure doesn't. Over the years, several other self-pronounced breatharians have failed to reproduce their foodless lifestyle for the cameras or scientists.

According to London's Daily Mail, Ellen (Jasmuheen) Greve, a proponent of the breatharian movement in the '90s, was caught by journalists with a house full of food and ordering an in-flight vegetarian meal. She also faced a health crisis while undergoing a controlled experiment in which she tried to prove her claims. Wiley Brooks, founder of the Breatharian Institute of America, claimed not to have eaten for 19 years, only to be allegedly caught ordering a chicken pot pie in 1983.

Ask any doctor, and you are sure to be told that a diet of light, air, and juice will probably cause anemia, fatigue, dehydration, reduction in muscle mass, immune deficiency, and possibly death. But despite the criticism from the scientific community, Werner maintains his legitimacy.

"I have taken part in two 10-day studies where everything was monitored—my blood pressure, urine, heart rate," Werner said in a Daily Mail article last month. "Much of my energy comes from light and the atmosphere. I absorb energy from light—like plants—and this allows me to function fully."

Regardless of how Werner functions, this talk about food—or lack thereof—has made Newscripts quite hungry for a sandwich.

This week's column was written by Faith Hayden. Please send comments and suggestions to


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