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Real World

The Theme of Science Fiction in Properties of Matter

Cryogenics

Let's start with a little history about the beloved family movie maker and animator, Walt Disney. That's right, we're going to learn a little history about Mr. Disneyland himself. Who would have thought that Disney and chemistry where meant to be together?


The man, the myth: Walt Disney 1901-1966. (Image from here.)

In November of 1966, Mr. Disney entered St Joseph hospital in California after weeks of deteriorating health. To make a long story short, doctors discovered his left lung to be cancerous and removed it. Walt was advised he would not live much longer. Two weeks later, his circulatory system collapsed.8

Almost immediately upon his death, rumors started circulating that he had arranged for his body to be frozen. Word on the street was that Disney's corpse was stored in a deep-freeze chamber awaiting the day when science could repair the damage to his body. Talk about a crazy urban legend.

In case you were wondering, the Disney family maintains that there is absolutely no truth to the rumor. But does the technology actually exist to freeze a human body and bring it back to life?

The answer is yes—and no. The truth is a little fuzzy in the scientific sense. The untested process is called cryonics. It was first suggested in 1962 by Robert C. W. Ettinger who founded the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, where people can indeed have their bodies frozen and stored.9

So while the technology to freeze and store the human body does exist, it is still not technically possible to re-animate (no pun intended) larger creatures like a human being. Regardless, the field of cryogenics is intriguing and has made many other technologies possible. In case you were wondering, cryogenics refers to all temperatures below the normal boiling point of oxygen (-183 oC).

Cryogenic freezing can suspend the life of tissues and organs used for transplants, making the life of a transplant surgeon much less stressful.

Minus 183ºC is a crazy low temperature. When substances encounter temperatures this low they often behave strangely. Liquids can behave like "superfluids" and metals can become "superconductors." Scientists have made use of the strange things that happen to matter at low temperatures.

One example is the huge electromagnets made from superconductors at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago. These electromagnets can produce a magnetic field 134,000 times as strong as the Earth's, and it operates on relatively little power. These magnets are used in nuclear power research and are used to find new nuclear particles, among other things.

Cryogenics produces large-scale amounts of nitrogen and oxygen. Scuba divers and astronauts use compressed oxygen tanks that provide a six to eight hour supply of oxygen. Rocket engines use liquid oxygen as fuel. We use liquid nitrogen to make ammonia for fertilizers and to keep frozen foods cold during transport.

The list of applications of cryogenics is long and varied and research continues in the field. While it might not be possible to freeze human bodies and bring them back to life at this current moment in time, who knows what might be possible in the future!

To learn more about cryonics and cryogenics check out these links:

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