In Search Of… S03E06 Cryogenics

It's an episode on cryonics -- an idea so terrible I can't even be bothered debunking it. Just google 'debunking cryonics' or 'cryogenics = crap' or something. Anyway, we start with a bunch of technicians freezing an embryo, which is a little cool and mad sciencey, but not by enough. Nimoy is in top form, though, talking about how the internal processes of the embryo cease at low temperatures and how that might help to preserve life forever.

In Search Of s03e06 Cryogenics
If you don't understand Cryogenics, this handy graphic should explain it all. You're welcome.

After the break, we're looking at ice – cold winds over a snow field, a car driving on a snowy street, people walking in a blizzard. Nimoy intones a little sermon about cold being the cruellest enemy of man. He talks about the medical implications of freezing, and we see some file footage of doctors treating frostbite. Now we're looking at the cold weather gear of Alaskan oil workers.

So what's the theme, class? Let's not see the same hands… Judith, what's the theme? That's right: cold.

Next up, Nimoy is sitting next to a big glass tube that's giving off cold vapours. He takes the theme a little deeper – from 'cold', we move on to 'very cold'.

Some beardy guys are playing with liquid nitrogen and helium while Nimoy waxes lyrical about absolute zero. This bit is real science, as the aim of the beardy guys is to freeze various human tissues and, using a microscope, see how they behave under very cold conditions. Some of their images of ice crystals forming in human cells are beautiful. Nimoy points out that cells can survive freezing – if they're frozen at the correct rate. Quite true. Small groups of cells can be carefully arranged to freeze like this. Whole bodies, not so much.

Over footage of snow covered trees, Nimoy points out that some animals are capable of freezing and being revived. Nimoy, now standing in front of something with a lot of dials on it, wonders if large animals can survive being frozen and thawed. To prove the point, we’re looking into the freezing of bull semen.

I pause for a brief tittering break. Tee hee. Tee hee hee!

Now back to the show.

The process looks kind of awesome – lots of big steel tanks billowing steam. Now we're at a clinic where human sperm is being frozen. Nimoy wonders whether human sperm frozen today could 'sire' a child in the far future.

Moving on to cool microscope footage of blood. Freezing blood is a thing. Dr Charles Huggins is head of the blood bank at Massachusetts General Hospital and is keen on freeing blood. He looks… ah, he actually looks fine. He's a grey haired man in a lab coat plus shirt and tie combo, thus making himself immune to my 1970s fashion jokes. Well played, Dr Huggins. He talks about the possibility of freezing organs. There's some beautiful microscope footage of organs at work.

At UCLA, Dr Josiah Brown has gotten around the problem of freezing large organs by freezing small organs. He's successfully frozen the pancreas of foetal rat and transplanted them into adult rats. Dr Brown has a beard, a receding hairline and I want to make fun of his medallion but actually I think it might be a microphone. He talks about freezing banks of pancreases and transplant them into diabetes patients.

Microscope footage of a blastocyst which Nimoy insists on calling an embryo. Nimoy points out that mouse embryos can be frozen and thawed implanted into mice where they grow to become embryos and then mice. This experiment has also been done with cattle where… OH GOD! I didn't need to see Cowboy Sam there with his hand up a cow's hoo-ha. Anyway, the cells are frozen and reimplanted into a cow. We see a perfectly ordinary looking calf which was grown from a frozen embryos.

Actually, in spite of my initial misgivings, things have been pretty straightforward so far. But now Nimoy's talking about freezing making man immortal. We illustrate this with a strange demonstration of hypothermia as a skier badly acts falling over and lying in the snow. Fortunately a guy with a husky saves her, ending the strange little episode.

Next up is Dr Paul Siegel – who we last saw trying to create super rats in the Immortality episode -- is now freezing rats. He still looks like Dr Sivana got a hair transplant. He's experimenting with inducing hypothermia in rats. The rat is frozen until it it clinically dead and then… wait, I'm pretty sure that we saw this exact same scene in the Immortality episode, right down to the lab assistant who looks like she's going to take her glasses off in the third act and redeem the mad scientist with the power of love.

Anyway, point is rat frozen for a while and then thawed. I don't remember the bit where Dr Siegel was watching the rat heart monitor. Here he gets a little less mad sciency and sounds more like a nerdy music enthusiast – 'listen to this bit, yeah, awesome right?'

More snow. Nimoy goes full  nature documentary here, talking about hibernation. There's some lovely footage of a scientist manhandling a hibernating squirrel. Nimoy claims we don't have a good reason why humans can't hibernate. A freeze dried fox proves… something. Frozen mammoths are edible. Look, take away point is – freezing rules.

Art Quaith, who runs a cryonic centre puts forward the… wait, up, wasn't this bit in the immortality episode too? Yeah, he was freeing a head in that episode as well. This sucks. Anyway, he gives the standard cryogenics argument – in the future, it'll be possible for the Federation to cure all ailments so once they're thawed out they'll be cured. Given what's happening to health care in the USA this seems flatly ridiculous. I'm all for universal health care, but even I'm willing to consider death a pre-existing condition that should lead to getting your insurance cut off.

There's some grainy footage of a dead guy being frozen. It's not that impressive.

An interviewer with a white woman afro chats to Dr Quaith. Mostly these are Dorothy Dix questions. But even so Quaith, is pretty up front about the fact that there's not much chance of coming back after being frozen, but he points out that you probably have more chance than if you're buried. I wonder who the woman was. She wasn't introduced.

Back to Josiah Brown, the frozen pancreas guy. He says there's little chance of freezing an entire body. Dr Huggins says that freezing an entire body is multiplying the difficulties of freezing each organ by the number of organs in the body.  He places successful cryonics 700-1000 years in the future. Even Nimoy calls cryogenic freezing 'the barest wisp of hope'. He suggests that the closest we'll get to immortality is the frozen embryo.

And then with the next sentence, Nimoy wonders what will happen when whole body freezing is perfected. People will be suspended before getting old, live for a decade or two into the future, then go forward again. Neat. They should do a Star Trek episode on… oh, they did.

Now Nimoy sums up, wondering about the ethics and economics of cryogenics and whether it's basically a good idea. And show's over.

So not a great episode, but not a terrible one. The first half had some really interesting stuff about genuine medical and veterinary applications of cryonics, and the producers seem so uninterested in the crazy immortality stuff in the second half that they just recycled a bunch of stuff. It's rare to see the show so unenthusiastic about its own topic.

Quotes

"It seems very dubious that we'll ever be able to successfully freeze a whole human." Dr Brown sums up the episode.

Summing Up:

Interesting topic: 5/10, Recycled footage: 5/10, Skiing re-enactment: 6/10. Microscope footage: 7/10, Nimoyness: 7/10. Overall: 30/50. Credit.

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