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A common trope in science fiction is the belief that if you freeze a person in ice that they will be immune to the effects of ageing or illness. This is far from realistic, but how close can we get? Using modern or near-future science, how close can we get to the 'freezing' immortality trick of the sci-fi genre?

The only rule is that the person must be unable to respond to stimuli.

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closed as off-topic by nitsua60, HDE 226868, bowlturner, JDługosz, Hohmannfan Feb 18 '16 at 5:07

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "This question does not appear to be about worldbuilding, within the scope defined in the help center." – nitsua60, HDE 226868, JDługosz, Hohmannfan
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There are some creatures such as wood frogs that freeze solid when winter comes and thaw out in spring. Nature proves that it is possible.

It has been done in labs to small creatures such as hamsters that do not naturally survive winter this way. Embryos of many mammalian species can be frozen, thawed, and they gestate normally when reimplanted.

The big problem is ice crystals. If water is frozen suddenly it forms a glassy material inside cells which locks the biological elements in place and pretty much stops all chemistry. When a cell in this state thaws it resumes as it was before freezing. But if water freezes more slowly it forms sharp crystals which cut the biological elements of the cell to shreds. When thawed it is so badly damaged it usually dies pdq.

The larger an animal the harder it is to cool it fast. Nature has evolved some species with special.polymers in their cells that inhibit the formation of ice crystals. Hence wood frogs. Mammals, even the ones that hibernate, lack these. A hamster can be artificially frozen fast enough to get its water to glass without crystallising. A human is too big.

Hopeless? Not if you permit genetic modification of humans to express a protective factor in all cells in their bodies, like wood frogs. Probably beyond us today, and there are big ethical issues even if it were ever proved possible with other primates.

How long could a properly frozen animal survive? Close to absolute zero all normal chemical activity will stop. The limit will be the accumulating damage caused by natural radiation. If that is above the level that a body's self repair mechanisms can handle, the creature will die soon after being thawed. So one can get a rough estimate by finding out the lethal dose of radiation in one flash and calculating how many years of natural radiation accumulation is the same as that flash.

Edit. I looked up radiation doses. Typical natural background radiation is 3 milliSieverts per annum. Three Sieverts at once is usually lethal. So if the ice problem is solved a frozen body would probably be viable after a century and probably dead before a millennium had passed.

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This concept absolutely exists in the real world, and is called "suspended animation." It is a topic of active scientific research, and if the claims of some pretty respectable scientists are to be believed, it is not at all "far from realistic" (for example, there are claims that repeatable suspended animation has been achieved in mice). There are documented (though very rare) instances of humans being frozen stiff and then being revived with no apparent harm. How this happens is not well-understood, but there is speculation that breathing hydrogen sulfide can contribute to the slowing down of aging and decay processes and open the way to the animal/human being revived.

Sources:

  1. personal interest

  2. This Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suspended_animation

  3. This TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/mark_roth_suspended_animation?language=en

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    $\begingroup$ I'm not aware of any instances of a human being chilled to the point of ice formation and then revived without harm -- it's called "frostbite" if it doesn't extend to the core of the body, or "dead" if it does. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 12 '16 at 7:30
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    $\begingroup$ Once ice crystals start forming in the body you're in serious trouble as they rupture the cells. However there are documented cases of people surviving due to cold slowing the metabolism but not actually freezing you through. $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 12 '16 at 10:22
  • $\begingroup$ See for example this: medicaldaily.com/pulse/… $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 12 '16 at 10:22
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    $\begingroup$ Example without the religious rubbish: iflscience.com/health-and-medicine/… $\endgroup$ – Tim B Feb 12 '16 at 10:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark well it's been a long time since I last watched that TED talk, but I believe it mentioned a case of a woman or man who was found apparently dead of hypothermia after being stuck behind a waterfall for a couple of days, and later woke up and felt completely fine. A couple of similar cases were also described. So I guess those were temperatures just slightly above freezing. You may be correct that one cannot survive actual freezing. $\endgroup$ – user16869 Feb 12 '16 at 16:12
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In humans? Not very.

The closest we've come to freezing humans and successfully reviving them is therapeutic hypothermia, where the body temperature is lowered by a few degrees to reduce injury from hypoxic events. There's no indication that performing it on healthy humans will have any impact on life expectancy.

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How does freezing peas keep them from spoiling?

Freezing doesn't keep you alive. It keeps you from decaying. Today we have the ability to bring back the recently dead with defibrillators, CPR, and a shot of adrenalin. In the future we might be able to not only cure a stopped heart but also freezer burn.

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