What Do Lungfish, Salamanders, and Stowaways Have in Common?


Some new background on that teenage stowaway found in Hawaii last week turned up recently when his mother spoke to reporters from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The 15-year-old Somali boy had been told his mother had died, but when he found out she was still alive, he ran away from his home in Santa Clara and hopped into the wheel well of a Maui-bound 767 hoping to make his way back to her in Africa.

Experts say the oxygen level at cruising altitude was 20% of normal and that temperatures plummeted to 80 degrees below zero. The boy was unconscious for the entire flight, and woke up an hour after the plane landed.

This prompted a note from the esteemed Bob Nelson, the cryonics enthusiast who froze a Glendale professor in 1967, and still hopes that death can be overcome through hibernation. “There are many different types of this reduced metabolism,” Nelson told me, “that allow life to come almost to a complete stop without actually dying.”

His two favorite examples are the Siberian Salamander and the African Lung Fish. Nelson says the salamander “totally freezes in a solid block of ice for up to ten years, then when the ice melts it simply wakes up and continues on its search for a meal or a mate.” Nelson also explained the curious hibernation of the fish, which “burrow deep into the mud before it dries up and secrete a gelatin solution that hardens into a cocoon protecting its body for years safely in a state of suspended animation.”

I admire his optimism and faith in science and can’t wait for the biopic based on his book Freezing People Is (Not) Easy.