The Science of The X-Files: Cryonics, Immortality, and Psychic Talking Heads

Thursday, 21 January 2016 - 2:20PM
Weird Science
Medical Tech
Thursday, 21 January 2016 - 2:20PM
It's January, X-Files fans, which means we have less than a month to wait before our favorite alien conspiracy show returns for a six-episode miniseries. The pilot (which we saw at NYCC), airs on January 24th, but until then, we're going to give you daily articles about the fascinating science behind the X-Files, courtesy of science advisor Anne Simon and her book "The Real Science Behind the X-Files: Microbes, Meteorites, and Mutants."

In the season one X-Files episode, "Roland," scientist Arthur Grable is frozen in liquid nitrogen after death inside a stainless steel coffin, with the intent of preserving his body until science has figured out a way to solve that whole mortality issue. Ultimately, Mulder and Scully discover that he has faked his death, cryogenically preserved his head, and has been psychically controlling his mentally challenged brother to carry out his work for him. Cryonics is undoubtedly a real scientific field, but how much of its portrayal in The X-Files was based in real science? (Spoiler alert: it's not the talking head part.)

If Arthur really had been dead, freezing his body in liquid nitrogen would, in fact, preserve his body exactly as it was when he died. At -320 degrees F, his body could have remained viable for thousands of years.

Opening quote
"During that time, Arthur would be perfectly preserved," Simon writes. "The amount of tissue degeneration that occurs during one second at normal temperatures would take 30 trillion years at -320 degrees F. Radiation is a bit of a larger problem than tissue degeneration, but still would take about sixty thousand years before an already dead Arthur would accumulate a normally lethal dose."
Closing quote

So his body would have been preserved, but could he actually have been resuscitated? At the time that this episode came out, this process had been carried out on bacteria and smaller life forms, such as embryos, which had been frozen for years and gone on to produce healthy babies. But it was impossible to carry out the process on a multicellular, complex mammal, since the thawing process caused massive tissue damage from the resultant ice crystals. In the late 90s, however, scientists developed cryoprotectants that allowed for the freezing and subsequent thawing of perfectly preserved animal brains. 

However, there's still the issue of ischemia, or massive tissue damage resulting from the deprivation of oxygen and nutrients. Although the body does not experience massive cell death at the moment of legal "death"--when the heart stops--it does within thirty or sixty minutes. So unless the patient is frozen right away, it would take technologies that have not yet been developed in order to repair the damage that occurs before the body is frozen, such as extremely advanced nanotechnology.

But as it turns out, Arthur isn't dead at all. He faked his own death, froze his own head (Albert Einstein was rumored to do this as well, but after his death), and began bossing his identical twin brother around from inside the nitrogen tank. Mulder speculates that he is taking advantage of the "twin connection" so often explored in science fiction, as well as psychic abilities that he gained during the cryopreservation process. Unsurprisingly, Simon says this explanation is "not well grounded in science."

Opening quote
"While cryopreservation is known to cause some brain cells to increase in size, the destruction of brain tissue caused by the process of freezing combined with the total lack of oxygen should pretty much eliminate all brain activity, normal or psychic."
Closing quote

Again, cryonics has advanced considerably in the intervening decade or so, but still has not reached the point of preserving people well enough to make them psychic. But in general, many scientists have signed up for cryopreservation, and claim that we're getting closer to the goal of preserving human bodies for resuscitation all the time. Researchers in Pennsylvania have begun human trials for a "suspended animation" technique, and a tardigrade was just revived after being cryogenically frozen for 30 years. We may not be quite there yet, but it's possible that we'll get there someday, maybe even someday soon.

Also in this series:

The Science of The X-Files: "2Shy" and the Science of Vampires Who Suck Fat Out of Your Body

Alien Virus?" href="" target="_blank">The Science of The X-Files: Could Extraterrestrials Use Bees to Proliferate an Alien Virus?

The Science of The X-Files: Evil Eves and the Dangers of Human Cloning

The Science of The X-Files: Why the Alien Conspiracy Probably Wasn't a Hoax

The Science of The X-Files: Chernobyl, Genetic Hybridism, and the Science of the Flukeman

The Science of The X-Files: The Real-Life Biology of Parasitic Ice Worms from Outer Space

Earth on a Meteorite?" href="" target="_blank">The Science of The X-Files: Can Extraterrestrial Life Survive a Trip to Earth on a Meteorite?

The Science of The X-Files: The Black Oil Virus and Pathogens That Make You Commit Suicide

The Science of The X-Files: That Time Scientists Claimed They Found Extraterrestrial Life in Meteorites

The Science of The X-Files: Leonard Betts and the Science of Head Regeneration

The Science of The X-Files: How Baby Peacock from "Home" Could Actually Exist

The Science of The X-Files: Alien Acidic Blood and the Real-Life "Toxic Lady"
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