Death on Ice

Full Transcript

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff From the Science Lab, from

Allison Loudermilk: Hey, guys, welcome to the podcast. This is Allison Loudermilk, the science editor at

Robert Lamb: And this is Robert Lamb, science writer at In the podcast room here, the temporary room, it's pretty - it's kinda toasty, but the rest of the office it's kinda chilly.

Allison Loudermilk: Pretty freezing, pretty frigid.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It's that time of the year where it's getting warmer outside, but the air conditioning is already on and it's a little too ambitious.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. There's somebody in the office who's always hot, so you've got to turn it down for them. Then there's somebody who always all tiny and keeps space heaters on underneath her desk and piles on the shelves.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Then there's that one guy that's bringing in frozen corpses of dead rich people, so that they can be thawed out centuries from now in the future when they've created cures for their various ailments.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, right, the cryonics guy. Yeah, so that's the topic of today's podcast is, in fact, cryonics, death on ice.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I mean, this is a pretty snazzy topic. It's been in the news a lot over the past decade especially. It's all over sci-fi, just the idea of people freezing themselves when they die, so they can live forever. It's kinda morbid, but it's also kinda cool.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, right, right, in Neuromancer, the Tessier-Ashpools, the clan, the main clan in there.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, they're all frozen up in orbit, right, and just crazy as a rat in a coffee can.

Allison Loudermilk: Indeed. So just to refresh your memory, cryogenics is just the area of science that deals with what happens at really low temps. It doesn't just deal with us humans. Cryonics is the technique used to store human bodies at really low temperatures with the hope of one day reviving them. It is being performed today, the freezing part that is, not necessarily the reviving part, but the technology is really still in its infancy.

Here's a really interesting thing that stuck with me when we were researching this is that you don't have to freeze your whole body. You can, in fact, just freeze your head or, if you want to get more reductionist, you can just freeze your brain.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. This is, if anybody's watched Futurama, there's a whole deal with celebrities and there are just all these heads in jars. So in the future, you can go to a museum and meet past presidents in there.

Allison Loudermilk: Do they talk?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah, they talk, even people who are clearly not preserved and frozen. It'll be people, like, George Washington will be a head in a jar, and then it'll be the Beastie Boys.

Allison Loudermilk: So why are we so interested in this?

Robert Lamb: Well, because it's one of those topics that at once - it's one of those topics that is, yes, it's kinda ghastly and gross, and bizarre. It's also -

Allison Loudermilk: A chance at immortality.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's a shot at preserving life or -

Allison Loudermilk: Postponing death.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, preserving the human mind. Yeah. I mean, ultimately, it's all about cheating death. It's kinda the modern equivalence of the Pharaoh going in int o the pyramid. Based on the best information at the time that he was getting from the priest, if you go into this pyramid with all your stuff, then you're going to be set for the afterlife. This is kinda like a scientific take on it where it's, like, "Hey -

Allison Loudermilk: Some people would argue it's not very scientific, but we'll get into that.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, but it's using the - it's employing the science. Whether the science actually backs it up completely, we can get into that, but they're making a scientific argument for delivery into what is essentially the afterlife.

Allison Loudermilk: Some scientists are interested in it, like, astronauts for example. This would be pretty handy if you could freeze a couple of astronauts for a long distance journey to another world.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: If you happen to be suffering from some incurable disease, you could just go into the freeze until the cure arrives.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, like Mr. Burns in The Simpsons. Do you remember that one?

Allison Loudermilk: Uh-uh.

Robert Lamb: It was the one where Lisa gets to see what her future is going to be like. Mr. Burns, the evil boss, has been frozen until medical science can create a cure for 17 stab wounds to the back.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. One thing I was thinking about was I wonder if this could be a facet of a witness protection program in the future.

Robert Lamb: Oh, yeah. I mean, that's - because, in a way -

Allison Loudermilk: You're in trouble, just freeze you until -

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Put the ice on him and then he can wake up sometime in the future when it doesn't matter anymore.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. I read the American Cryonic Society offers the quote/unquote, "ultimate privacy option," in which your attorney handles all the details and the society doesn't even know your name. So you can be frozen anonymously.

Robert Lamb: You're just Corpsicle 3, or it wouldn't be 3, it would be morel like 10-something now, because according to those guys they're really stacking them up.

Allison Loudermilk: So the tricky thing about cryonics, of course, is that your heart has to stop beating in order for this procedure to be performed on you. It can't be performed on someone who's still alive, legally speaking.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because that would technically be murder.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, obviously. Thanks. That's a good point, Robert. So you have to be legally dead. What does legally dead mean? It means your heart stopped beating. Not totally dead, as in brain death. We have an article on brain death, which I read and got sidetracked in when I was researching this. So brains can survive, according to our article on brain death, for up to six minutes after your heart stops beating. So it's really interesting; between the time your hear stops beating and your brain cells start dying, there's this sorta purgatory.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, well, window of opportunity anyway, yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, right, exactly. This is where the cryonics people jump in. After the heart stops beating, there's some cellular brain function that they think may remain for those precious few minutes. So cryonics preserves that cell function so that, theoretically, the person can be resuscitated in the future.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It's kinda like if you're, say, a struggling actor at a pizzeria and you see a family with a bunch of breadsticks on the table, and they totally get up and leave the breadsticks when they go. It's like if you can s woop in and get those breadsticks before they come and bus the table, window of opportunity.

Allison Loudermilk: So let's get into the process of freezing a body. Say you're interested in joining a cryonics facility. Well, you'd have to pay an annual membership fee and this can be in the area of $400 a year or you can just get it all over at once. What if your estate isn't taken care of? What if your person who is the executor of your estate loafs off and decides to spend it on something else? Well, you just pay upfront, essentially.

Robert Lamb: Yeah.

Allison Loudermilk: A lot of money.

Robert Lamb: We're talking long-term planning here. If you're just rolling in the dough, you could have some sort of account set up where the interest off of your massive amount of money goes to pay for your yearly fee. It's kinda like what we named those condos you have to pay for the lawn upkeep.

Allison Loudermilk: Timeshare.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, no, no, but the association fee.

Allison Loudermilk: Okay, yeah. Right. Some of the organizations - this cracked me up - offered discounts on fees for students. So if you're a struggling student, but are still interested in cryonics, you can start now and just pay a discounted fee.

Robert Lamb: Wait. Wouldn't you have to be dead? You're not really struggling any more at that point.

Allison Loudermilk: Well, I think they offer payment programs. I think that's the idea behind it.

Robert Lamb: Unless you're not brain dead, so for 600 years or however long you're frozen, you're still having that dream about how you didn't drop that class in time.

Allison Loudermilk: Right, right, right, or showing up naked for a test, that's the worst. So the first step is joining this facility and paying out some cash. Then things start to get interesting. When your heart stops beating and you're pronounced legally dead, then there's an emergency response team from the facility, and they spring into action.

So the problem here that I was thinking about is what do you do if you die an accidental death and you're kinda stuck? What happens? Does the cryonics company refund your money?

Robert Lamb: I would hope you would have a voucher that it's, like, if I'm not able to use it, then I've got a freezing voucher that I can pass on to somebody else that I care about.

Allison Loudermilk: That's a good idea.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. I mean, that's just my idea. I have no idea what they do.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So the team springs into action and the first thing they do is they stabilize your body. They're supplying your brain with enough oxygen and blood to preserve minimal function until you can be transported to the suspension facility.

Robert Lamb: So at this point, they put you on ice.

Allison Loudermilk: That's a lot of ice.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, and we're just talking normal ice here, just to cool you down. Then they also inject you with an anticoagulant to keep your blood from clotting during the trip. Then a medical team just awaits the arrival of your body at the cryonics facility.

Allison Loudermilk: And that is when the actual freezing begins, when you get there. You can't really just put people into a vat of liquid nitrogen because the water inside their cells would freeze. When water freezes, it expands, and then your cells would be in bad shape. They would shatter.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Anybody who's ever put a glass of anything in the freezer has observed this. Now imagine that with the whole body, it's not good.

Allison Loudermilk: Not good at all. So the cryonics team must first remove the water from your cells and replace it with this funky mixture called a cryoprotectant. It's a sorta human antifreeze.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. The goal here is to protect the organs and the tissue from forming those ice crystals at those really low temperatures.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. You don't want your organs to get freezer burn.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, so this is called vitrification; deep cooling without the freezing.

It puts the cells into a state of suspended animation

Allison Loudermilk: Next, your body is laid on a bed of dry ice until it reaches the temperature necessary, which is roughly around -130 degrees Celsius.

Robert Lamb: You can only imagine it looks really gnarly at this point because it's like a haunted house, all that dry ice smoking and your corpse is sitting on top, and they're - I'm just saying it probably looks pretty cool.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. So that completes the vitrification process. Also, what is with the name? That is not a very attractive name.

Robert Lamb: I don't know.

Allison Loudermilk: You feel okay with it?

Robert Lamb: Well, it's kinda - it sounds like - it's got a strong "V," like, vigorous.

Allison Loudermilk: Vital, vile. Anyway, the next step is inserting the body into an individual container that's placed into this huge tank filled with liquid nitrogen at a temperature around -196 Celsius. And, check this out, they store you head down, so if there's ever a leak in the tank, your brain stays immersed in the freezing liquid.

Robert Lamb: Oh, that's good.

Allison Loudermilk: If there is a leak - they do check to see if there are leaks periodically.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, because you don't want to - you know, they crack the vat open a couple millennia in the future and they're, like, 'Oh, well, only his feet survived."

Allison Loudermilk: The other thing is you're going to have some company in your container, as a lot of people - well, not a lot, but a few people are typically stored in a container.

Robert Lamb: I bet if you paid down some more money, you could probably get a solo tank.

Allison Loudermilk: Totally.

Robert Lamb: If you're just super weird about that kinda thing.

Allison Loudermilk: So now that you're all handy and froze, and upside down in the tank, how do you revive someone? Well, you don't, and this is where the cryonics problems starts to get a little messy.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. It's kinda a gamble, really. It's saying, "Hey, we're going to go ahead and chill this out and, eventually, science is going to catch up with us and they're going to be able to do something with it."

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. In a weird way, it's sort of a faith in science, which is nice.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, I get it. It's like applying the - it's applying science in the same way that one might have applied religion in ancient times.

Allison Loudermilk: So a couple points in cryonics favor if you were considering this, living organisms can be and have been brought back from a dead or near-dead state. You have things like defibrillators and CPR bringing back accident and heart attack victims all the time.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Then you have other organisms that can, quote, "freeze themselves."

Allison Loudermilk: Like the wood frog. The wood frog is awesome. So it can deal with freezing of up to 65 to 70 percent of their body water. It can maintain a minimum body temperature of -6 degrees Celsius, and for four weeks, it can stay frozen.

Robert Lamb: That's pretty good. I'm impressed.

Allison Loudermilk: So what helps the wood frog to survive the freeze? Well, what are the responses promoting the tolerance in these frogs is they're able to redistribute the water within their body. So all that water that's normally found all over the tissues is concentrated within the lymph system and the colon.

Robert Lamb: Oh, cool. So they just repurpose it to areas that aren't going to be damaged by that crystallization process.

Allison Loudermilk: Exactly, exactly. The other cool thing about the wood frog is it has this inherent cryoprotectant in the form of glucose from liver glycogen and, then, it can quickly make and send it to the rest of the body. So this happens really fast.

Robert Lamb: Oh, cool. So basically this is a creature that has evolved to deal with cold spells, and so it can survive cold spells.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, and it has good company. There are about a dozen different reptiles and amphibians that can freeze themselves, according to Miami University Department of Zoology.

Robert Lamb: So maybe we should - I'm just going to throw this out there. Maybe we should be looking to the continuing evolution of, say, Canadians or any -

Allison Loudermilk: Siberians?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, anybody living in extreme temperatures, nature's eventually going to catch up. Just quit turning on the heat and ruining things. So one thing reassuring about all this is that we can freeze certain human materials, say, embryos and semen.

Allison Loudermilk: Most definitely. That was an interesting thing to look into while we were researching this podcast. Yeah, human embryos that are frozen in fertility clinics are defrosted and implanted in mother's uterus, and they grow into totally normal human beings.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. That's a great example of us putting life on ice and, then, in a way, reviving it.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. So if were considering cryonics, I would think that would be something that would point me in its favor, "Well, we can do it with semen and embryos." Granted, it's not a human body, and the argument there is the human body is enormously complicated. It's one thing to de-ice semen or embryos, but it's another thing entirely to de-ice a human being.

Robert Lamb: Yeah,

but I guess it seems like a natural progression

Allison Loudermilk: A complicated natural progression.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, a complicated one, but take for instance being able to freeze organs for transplant. You might think, all right, that's a very practical means. If somebody dies, we harvest their organs and then we can put them on ice to make sure that they are ready when somebody needs them or that they can be transported to the person who needs them, and that would be an actual need that would be lead to better freezing techniques.

Allison Loudermilk: Right. Well, they are put on ice now, but yeah, the shelf life of them is so fast. I mean, you have to move it instantly, get that kidney on ice and, bam, send it to the recipient.

Robert Lamb: Uh-huh.

Allison Loudermilk: It sounds like the U.S. courts haven't quite figured out what to make of cryonics just yet. Did you see that news story I sent you?

Robert Lamb: Oh, yeah, yeah, the one from Iowa, right?

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. The Iowa Court of Appeals has ordered the family of a deceased man to exhume his body so that his previous wishes to have his head frozen by an Arizona cryonics company can be met.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, that was a story in the Iowa Independent.

Robert Lamb: That seems kinda like he - because how long has he been in the ground? It's kinda over at this point. What's the point of freezing it?

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. The story goes on to say that he died in February 2009 at age 81. Prior to his demise, he had entered into this contract with a cryonics company called Alcor Life Extension Foundation, but his brother and his sister didn't to do it, so they had him buried. The Appeals Court said, "No, no, you got to dig that guy up and you're going to stick him in the cryonics facility."

Robert Lamb: Yeah, that's - I mean, it sounds like those breadsticks have been bust. I mean, unless I'm missing something and the ground is really cold there, that one's kinda done for.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, kinda odd.

Robert Lamb: So this is pretty cool. I was pulling up some different statistics and I think you were looking at these too. The Cryonics Institute has a bunch of comparative procedures and policies on their website, so you can look at some of the different places you could have your body frozen.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, you can shop around for the best deal.

Robert Lamb: So there's Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, American Cryonic Society in California, Cryonics Institute in Michigan, KrioRus -

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah, the Russian one, right?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, the Russian one.

Allison Loudermilk: I saw that.

Robert Lamb: Then there's Suspended Animation, Inc. in Florida.

Allison Loudermilk: That has a nice ring to it.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it sounds -

Allison Loudermilk: I wonder if they do anime there too.

Robert Lamb: It does, it sounds kinda - I don't know. It sounds like something out of a novel. Then there's Trans Time, Inc. also in California. So California is a hotbed of getting your body frozen pretty much, but they have all this other stuff on their too about which ones offer just the head or full body freezing, what kind of prices are involved. There was one that was pretty - that I was kinda eying because it had some - it wasn't that much per year.

I think they had the yearly cost down to - yeah, like, Trans Time and Cryonics Institute, they had it down to one is, like, $96 for yearly fee and the other one's $120. Of course, it still takes an enormous amount of money to get frozen to begin with, but it's, like, $120 a year, I'd probably spend that much on, I don't know, beer or something.

Allison Loudermilk: Indeed.

Robert Lamb: Well, not beer, but something. I don't know.

Allison Loudermilk: Fine coffee.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, something.

Allison Loudermilk: Caffeine to keep you awake during your podcasts.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, definitely on caffeine. Yeah, so for the price of one year's worth of coffee, I could have my body frozen until they figure out how to restore me and put me in a new android body in the future.

Allison Loudermilk: Or you could have the exact opposite done and you could be burned up, Robert.

Robert Lamb: That's right.

Allison Loudermilk: For a lot cheaper.

Robert Lamb: Or composted. That's going to be the next big craze they say.

Allison Loudermilk: Human composting?

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah. There's actually a whole deal about it in, actually, in Mary Roach's Stiff book.

Allison Loudermilk: Kinda like Body Farm?

Robert Lamb: Kinda. I mean, it basically operates along the principal that it's kinda like - I feel like today's generation, a lot of us are - I feel it's like I'd be telling my parents and I'd be, like, "I think being buried in the ground would be a waste because I'm taking up valuable -

Allison Loudermilk: - real estate.

Robert Lamb: - real estate, it's costing money, and then what am I doing down there? I'm just being kept in this artificial state and still decaying, when you could just burn me, right, and that will be a lot clearer and simpler. Then there's this new movement saying, "Well, no, actually, you're creating emissions when you burn a body, all this fire, et cetera."

Allison Loudermilk: Right. It also keeps - it requires a lot of energy to keep the incinerator up at that temperature.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. Then if you have any fillings, et cetera, you might something in there that burns up and adds to pollution. So there are people who say, "Hey, what would be more natural than just simply becoming a part of the earth again?" You're buried - they have these green burials where -

Allison Loudermilk: Six Feet Under.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah, they talked about it on there, where not much is done to the corpse. You just - you're taken by the ecosystem. It's actually a lot like - I believe they do that in Tibet. You've probably seen the pictures where they take the body and they leave it up on the rocks for the scavengers. So yeah, that's all about continuing the natural cycle, the compete opposite of freezing yourself so that can robots can rebuild your body in the future, but go for it if that's your thing. Don't let me talk you out of it.

Allison Loudermilk: Yeah. So I think that wraps it up for death, and death on ice in particular. If you're curious about death or cryonics, we have many articles on both, so head on over to the homepage and type in cryonics or brain death, or how dying works. Molly Edmonds wrote a really good article on how dying works that I liked.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, yeah, every interesting all the processes that are going on in it. Hey, and we also have Facebook and Twitter accounts now.

Allison Loudermilk: We sure do. There is Stuff From the Science Lab on Facebook and Lab Stuff over on Twitter.

Robert Lamb: Yeah. You should be able to put Lab Stuff into either and that'll bring you right to us. We'll keep you updated on what we're talking about, what we're podcasting about, what we're writing about, and just what we find particularly amusing. Today, I ran across this awesome link from 2005 about this Japanese mixed martial artist who started talking about how he would seriously want to have a fight with an alien, and how he might carry it out.

Allison Loudermilk: Excellent.

Robert Lamb: Yeah, it's amazing.

Allison Loudermilk: So if you want to write to us and let us get some of [inaudible], send us an email at

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Want more Howstuffworks? Check out our blogs on the homepage.