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Towards the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, seeing no other way of landing the airplane without detonating the weapons inside, Cap crashes the plane into the Arctic with himself still inside it. After a long wait of 70 years, he’s finally found and it is discovered that he is still alive! The scene then cuts to the present day, where Cap wakes up in a 1940s-style hospital room, without a single scratch or bruise on his body!
If you follow Captain America in any way, either through movies or comics, then you know that unlike other Marvel superheroes (e.g., Thor, Spiderman and Wolverine), he does not have any supernatural powers. Cap is a ‘regular’ human with heightened agility, strength and endurance. How Steve Rogers, a rather sickly, scrawny youngster, transformed into Captain America is a different story altogether, but how could he possibly survive being frozen for no less than seventy years?
Your instinctive response may be, ‘Well, that’s because he’s a superhero, isn’t it?’ That wouldn’t be incorrect, but is there actually a scientific reason behind Cap’s miraculous escape after being buried in snow for 70 long years?
How did Captain America survive?
Well, much of his survival has to do with the super-serum that had been injected into his bloodstream as part of Operation: Rebirth, which occurred in the beginning of the movie. While the constituents and formula for making the serum were never revealed, its effects on Cap’s body are clearly visible. The serum not only gave him unmatched physical and mental strength, but as it turns out, it also kept his blood from freezing in the subzero conditions of the Arctic.
The super-soldier serum, along with the unusually bitter ambient coldness, allowed him to enter a state of suspended animation, which is why Cap remained alive and well for not one, not two, but the next seventy years! This was the explanation that the creators of Captain America offered for his seemingly implausible survival in the ice for seventy years, and this explanation was good enough for Cap’s fans, who wanted to see more of Captain America in action.
So, what is this ‘suspended animation’? Is it just another mysterious fantastical term that’s far from the realm of the physical world… or is it something real?
Yes, suspended animation is a real thing!
To give you a quick definition, suspended animation is the slowing down, or altogether stopping, of certain life processes through certain means without causing the death of the person in question.
Involuntary bodily processes, such as our heartbeat and breathing, may occur, but you would need artificial means to detect them. In fact, very small organisms (such as embryos of up to eight cells) are preserved in this way, and some have been kept in preservation for as long as 13 years!
Such a suspended state of living can be induced using certain methods, including temperature alterations and chemical changes. It has been seen that lowering the temperature of a substance lowers its ‘chemical activities’ (Arrhenius equation). Metabolism, an incredibly vital chemical activity that occurs within the human body, falls under such ‘chemical activities’.
A long way to go!
Such a process, as of now, is far more complex than what they showed in Captain America. A human body cannot survive, even in a state of suspended animation, while being exposed to excessive cold temperatures for such long periods of time. There are simply too many pitfalls involved, including damage from ice formation and the loss of cellular viability, not to mention the ethical ramifications of freezing someone in such inhospitable conditions. With all these roadblocks, a distinct lack of experimentation limits our chances of understanding it much further.
Presently, we need to be better equipped, both in terms of understanding the process and technological know-how, to be able to recreate anything close to the super-heroic survival of Captain America.
As it turns out, surviving for extended periods of time in extremely cold temperatures IS possible, but getting your hands on super-soldier serum and vita rays… not so much.