Dude gets splashed with liquid helium, or blasted with cryogas, or breathed on by a white dragon, and he freezes solid into an immobile, frosty, astonished-looking block of man. Then he teeters over and crash! Smashes into a million pieces on the ground. We've seen it in the movies a million times. But has it ever actually happened to anyone? I've seen guys on TV deep-freeze hot dogs and roses and such and smash them with a hammer, but is it even plausible for this to happen to a human?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
You want to clear a room fast, try asking for a volunteer for human sacrifice. Plan B likewise proved impractical when Una balked at obtaining a corpse. Thank God for the medical databases. Even so, progress was slow. Notable findings:
1. Despite determined effort, I couldn’t find any instance of a person’s body or portion thereof shattering.
2. On the fantasy front, I came across an episode of the TV series Bones “debunking” the idea that a human body would shatter if frozen in liquid nitrogen by freezing a turkey and dropping it. (It bounced.) Needless to say, this proves squat. I’ve also found numerous unverifiable anecdotal accounts from folks saying they’ve never seen meat with a bone in it shatter (such as a leg of lamb), but that hot dogs and such can. The folks on the Mythbusters TV series did a show not long ago in which they filled a human skull with ballistic gel, then deep-froze it; they were able to break chunks off later (yes, it was gross), but the skull wouldn’t shatter. Interesting, but I was skeptical that a skull filled with gel closely replicated the real thing.
3. A Swedish company called Promessa claims to have developed an environmentally friendly way of disposing of bodies. The deceased is frozen in liquid nitrogen, then shattered with sound waves, and the resultant pieces are composted. The firm’s European patent claims the process works, but while I can find lots of press about it, I see no indication of so much as a trial run. Attempting to contact the company has proven fruitless, and its Web site doesn’t appear to have been updated in years. So I wouldn’t count on cryogenic mortuary services showing up at Costco any time soon.
4. German researchers investigating a potential case of insurance fraud (where an engineer suffered gangrene from liquid nitrogen spilled on the foot and leg) tested cadaver limbs to see how cold they got from exposure to liquid nitrogen. Pouring liquid nitrogen over the limbs created frost on the skin, but the internal temperature hardly budged. Dunking the limbs into liquid nitrogen for 40 seconds froze the skin solid, but the internal temperature only dropped a few degrees, and everything thawed in less than ten minutes. I’m confident you could get a body to freeze solid if you kept it in the tank long enough, but you can see this isn’t going to be anywhere near as dramatic as it looks onscreen.
5. Experimental inquiry having proved disappointing, I next had Una see what she could scare up in the accident reports. Some 56,000 people work in cryogenics, with an injury rate of 4.4 percent. However, only a few severe freezing incidents emerged. One involved a man who stepped into a bucket of liquid nitrogen wearing only his socks, possibly in an attempt at self-mutilation. His foot and lower leg were frozen solid and eventually required amputation, but they didn’t shatter, remaining intact after thawing. In another case a university student filling liquid nitrogen flasks collapsed and was found frozen to the floor but again, no shattering. A third individual had liquid propane splash onto his face and arms, freezing his gloves to his hands. Gangrene claimed two fingers, but they didn’t break off.
6. The real danger from cryogenic liquids, if I may digress, is asphyxiation or explosion, both of which can occur when the liquid evaporates in a confined space. If the room fills with a gas other than oxygen, you can suffocate. Evaporating chemicals can also expand to hundreds of times their liquid volume, meaning you can blow up. Last July a German chef working with a canister of liquid nitrogen lost both hands as a result of an explosion. In 1997 a Worcester Polytechnic student unaccountably decided to put liquid nitrogen in his mouth and blow smoke rings. Problem was, he accidentally swallowed the stuff instead, and the expanding gas blew a hole in his stomach and collapsed a lung. He lost part of part of his stomach and scarred his gastrointestinal tract, but otherwise recovered.
Judging from the above, I’m guessing fibrous tissue would prevent a body from simply shattering no matter what happened. One longs to conduct a humane experiment or two to establish this conclusively, but with $41 in the Straight Dope Research and Entertainment Fund, well … a leg of lamb or turkey won’t break the bank, but have you priced a tank of liquid nitrogen lately? (Late update: nitpickers object that while the tank may be dear, the liquid itself is cheap, and I could buy a few gallons at the nitrogen store and perform the experiment in the parking lot. Please, you mopes, I’m trying to be professional about this.) No matter. Lacking the flashy resources of our TV brethren, we old-school know-it-alls do the best we can based on intellect alone.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.