CPR First Aid

The State of Our Bodies at Absolute Zero

Many people have waged war against lower temperatures on the earth. Whether it’s Russian ice swimming or climbing the frigid mountaintops, people have challenged it and survived. 

While these endeavours and places are cold, somewhere in the universe, there is always something colder. In fact, there is a temperature considered to be the coldest ever. 

It is called absolute zero

The interesting question here is what would happen to a person’s body if it reaches way below a positive temperature? Let’s find out together.

What is Absolute Zero?

Most people have heard that this is the coldest temperature possible. It is the point where entropy reaches its minimum value in any type of temperature measurement. Absolute zero is the lowest limit of the thermodynamic temperature scale, as the laws of thermodynamics dictate. In simpler terms, it’s when molecules stop moving.

For context, this absolute temperature on the Kelvin scale is – 273.15 degrees on a Celsius scale or 0 K. That’s about – 459.67 degrees Fahrenheit for those in North America.

Just to give you an idea of how cold this is, water freezes at 273.15 K or zero temperature.

This negative temperature can be found naturally in space. In certain extreme conditions such as inside nebula or close to black holes, temperatures approach and may even mimic the zero Kelvin mark. In these areas of the universe, conditions mirror the frigid environment akin to absolute zero, influencing the behavior of particles, possibly leading to phenomena like the formation of Bose-Einstein condensates or showcasing superfluidity.

Some of the coldest recorded temperatures in our solar system were taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft. It reached levels as low as nanokelvin and picokelvin, closer to the Planck scale where quantum physics dominates.

To date, it has not yet been achieved, but these extreme conditions challenge our understanding of physics, bringing in elements of relativity, uncertainty principle, and quantum mechanics. English scientists and experts of other nationalities say it can never be achieved, but some have come close. Some laboratory tests achieved temperatures within a few billionths of a degree of absolute zero.

Most people have heard that this is the coldest temperature possible. It is the point where entropy reaches its minimum value in any type of temperature measurement. Absolute zero is the lowest limit of the thermodynamic temperature scale, as the laws of thermodynamics dictate. In simpler terms, it’s when molecules stop moving.

What is the Use of Studying It?

Essential For Other Disciplines

To many, the absolute temperature scale may seem like a pointless endeavour. However, this is actually essential for many physicists and scientific disciplines such as quantum mechanics and nuclear magnetic resonance. It is why quantum computers are exploring temperatures approaching absolute zero. Scientists from around the world including those from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) also conducted research and experiment to reach a – 459.67 degrees on a Fahrenheit Scale.

In quantum mechanics, this temperature is the starting point for defining the zeroth point of energy. It’s also used to help create materials with novel electronic properties.

For example, superconductors that can conduct electricity without resistance are created near absolute temperatures. This shows the intricate interplay of quantum physics at these extremely low temperatures.

As a Reference

Furthermore, NMR or nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy relies on this temperature as a baseline reference point. This form of spectroscopy is used in chemistry and physics to study the properties of atoms and molecules.

In many scientific fields, absolute cold is also used as a standard temperature and pressure (STP). This includes atmospheric science, material science, and even some medical applications.

Advancing Cryogenic Research

Lastly, it is also important for cryogenic research. This is the study of materials at extremely low temperatures.

It’s used to help develop new alloys, improve the strength of materials, and make better magnets. In some cases, it can also be used to reverse certain chemical reactions.

In addition, many people also hope that cryogenic research will make a breakthrough. This will allow people to freeze their bodies or certain items until they can be thawed out again.

Interestingly enough, certain scientists are actually trying to and have gotten close to reaching a temperature below absolute zero.

What Happens to the Body at Absolute Zero?

It is interesting to try and think about what happens to the human body when it comes in contact with the lowest possible temperature (-273.15 degrees Celsius) or the coldest place. As it’s where the kinetic energy of particles reaches its minimum point. Some have already thought up these effects.

At this extreme cold, the amount of energy available to the body for its functions decreases and diminishes entirely. Heat energy dissipates, leaving the body unable to maintain its natural processes. The behavior of electrons and the conduction of energy would drastically change from the usual conditions. In essence, this state represents the zero-point of thermal energy where it’s not possible to extract warmth or energy. The ideal gas law, which governs the behavior of gases under standard conditions, would no longer apply, so the body’s usual physiological functions would not work as usual.

The thought experiment saw a piece of metal frozen to the coldest temperature in the whole universe. Here’s what would happen if a person touched it.

Absorbs All Heat

The first thing that happens to the body is that the object absorbs all heat from the part touching the piece of metal. This is mainly due to the moisture that covers the hand. This already happens at the freezing point of water.

Objects Get Stuck to the Body

Next, the piece of metal will ultimately stick to the hand. A person will not be able to let go of it at all. This is because the metal has frozen all of the water located inside the tiny pores on the hand.

This phenomenon can already be experienced during cold seasons. In the movie Dumb and Dumber (1994), we saw one character lick a flag pole. The tongue gets stuck and is comically elongated as they try to pull it away.

This is much like that, albeit much more painful. Any attempt at trying to pry away the object from the hand will result in torn skin and many worse things.

Constricts Blood Vessels

Another thing that happens is the constriction of blood vessels. This is the body’s natural response to cold temperatures.

The process happens when the smooth muscles located in the walls of arteries and veins contract. The smaller the diameter of these blood vessels, the lesser the amount of blood flow.

This is what gives people that “cold feeling”. It can also cause numbness and pale skin due to the lack of blood flow.

This happens because the body is circulating the blood to the most important places which are the organs required to survive. It helps to keep the body’s core temperature in these areas up.

Freezes Liquid Inside Body Part

Of course, another effect of this temperature is the freezing of any liquid inside the body part touching absolute zero.

This includes all fluids such as blood, lymph, and even tears, granted these parts touch the absolutely cold object. The water inside cells will also freeze solid and create crystals, causing damage to the skin cells.

Damage to Skin, Muscles, and Tendons

The damage doesn’t just stop at the skin cells though. The damage done to the skin, muscles, and tendons is perhaps the most severe.

Since this temperature is where all motion stops, this also includes vibrations of molecules.

Atoms and molecules in solids are already very close together. They don’t have much room to vibrate.

However, liquids and gases, have more space to move around. The freezing point is when their motion starts to slow down.

At this temperature though, all motion stops. This can cause severe damage to tissues since they are not meant to stop moving entirely.

The damage from the skin, all the way down to the tendons and the muscles deep in the body.

Severe Cryo Burns

Another effect that can happen is severe cryogenic burns.

This is basically when the cells in the body are damaged due to the extreme cold temperature.

It is similar to frostbite but much more severe since this temperature is, well, freezing.

The cells will literally start to die and will be irreparable. The tissue will be permanently damaged.

This will eventually lead to the death of tissues, as well as gangrene.

Amputation

Lastly, one of the most extreme effects that can happen is the need for amputation.

This is usually the only way to save a person from dying since this temperature will literally stop all cell functions in the body.

The tissue will be so damaged that it will start to die. If not treated immediately, the whole limb will be lost.

Amputation might seem drastic, but it is sometimes the only way to save a person’s life.

A Reminder About the Cold

Despite absolute zero is an interesting phenomenon that is currently beyond man’s reach, it is not something that should be taken lightly. The effects on the human body are severe and can even lead to death.

Be that as it may, all of this should remind people that cold temperatures have many negative effects on the body. They aren’t as drastic as what the absolute cold offers, at least if you know how to treat these symptoms with the right first aid practices.

Despite absolute zero is an interesting phenomenon that is currently beyond man’s reach, it is not something that should be taken lightly. The effects on the human body are severe and can even lead to death.

Learn more with CPR First Aid’s Liverpool course.

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