Ashcroft, Frances. Life at the Extremes: The Science of Survival. London: Flamingo, 2001
(Originally, HarperCollins, 2000).
The author of this very readable book is a Professor of Physiology at Oxford, a Fellow of the
Royal Society and of Trinity College. This is her first book for the general reader and it is a
remarkable accomplishment. I note as an aside that I began my career in the social sciences by
studying the psychology of survival during the Korean War. Then the Air Force was interested in
having our downed airmen survive in the North. And there were all sorts of problems which
confronted airmen including the fact that they apparently could be "brainwashed." My work had
a bit to do with brainwashing but, for the most part, we examined psychological responses to
cold, heat, starvation, thirst, and so on. Ours was a practical "science" by means of which we
hoped to prepare individual airmen to survive under any conditions by preparing them with the
facts they needed and the skills they had to have in order to survive. Stead Air Force Base was
my duty station and that was the home of the Survival Training Squadron of the Strategic Air
Command. I mention all this in that it was the subtitle of this book which initially attracted me to
it; it was the content of the book that kept me turning the pages.
Be clear on this: the author is a physiologist who is looking at the ability of the human body to
survive under extreme circumstances. Sure, we know how the body responds and reacts to
"normal temperature and pressure," but how does it behave/react under extreme conditions of
cold, heat, starvation, thirst, life at the bottom of the sea, and life in space, and in marathons.
How far can the human body be pushed and still survive? This is a book on esoteric subjects such
as extreme heat, but this is precisely why the book is so important: it is necessary to understand
the limits as well as the normal.
There's lots of stuff in this book for the curious. For example she suggests that the Spanish
Inquisition did not burn its victims strictly for "punishment" for their heresies but, rather, that:
"The Spanish Inquisition believed that death at the stake was necessary to cleanse unrepentant
sinners of their sins, and thus save their souls from damnation, while the mere mention of Hell
conjures up images of everlasting fire. Our fascination with the ability of fire-walkers to walk
barefoot across a bed of hot coals without harm derives not only from the imagined pain but also
from these cultural associations. Indeed, fire-walking may have begun as a means of assessing
the guilt of the sinner, or testing the sincerity and spiritual strength of the novitiate. "There is
nothing supernatural about fire-walking, however, nor does it require a special ‘state of mind."
The sevret lies in the low thermal conductivity of wood and the relatively short time that the
fire-walker's feet remain in contact with the hot coals. Wood is a very poor conductor of heat and
charcoal is almost four times better as an insulator. This means that little of the heat in the hot
ashes is passed on to the feet and it is possible to walk across embers as hot as 800C for as far as
52 meters. Fire-walking is thus a matter of physics rather than physiology." (p. 114) This passage
is typical of the no-nonsense approach taken throughout the book.
I have always thought it the fault of whetherpersons in the media that they "exaggerated" the
"wind-chill factor" for their audience. It struck me as much more newsworthy if a lower
temperature or a higher one could be used in the news. Wind-chill is always higher than the
temperature and it seemed reasonable to blame it on and consider it to be another example of
hype. Yet, I find that the scale for wind chill was developed as it is for another reason entirely:
The term ‘wind-chill factor' was coined by the American explorer Paul Siple to describe the fact
that wind enhances the rate of heat loss (because it removes the surface layer of warm air and
replaces it with cold). While visiting Antarctica in 1941, he and Charles Passel carried out a
series of simple but ingenious experiments in which they compared the time it took for
baked-bean tins filled with water to freeze at different temperature in the either still air or when
exposed to strong winds. They found a marked difference in the freezing rate and subseauently
devised a formula that enables the cooling power of the wind to be estimated in terms of a
‘win-chill equivalent temperature.' In still air of -29C, there is little danger for a properly clothed
person. If the wind is a mere 10 miles per hour, however, the temperature drops to the equivalent
of - 44C and skin freezes within one or two minutes. Increase the wind speed to 25 mph and the
equivalent temperature is -66C. There is then severe danger, with flesh freezing within thirty
seconds. The wind-chill factor can mean that even in air temperatures of around zero, frostbite of
the extremities is possible. However, the widespread use of Siple's formula to calculate
wind-chill factors can sometimes be overly dramatic when applied to humans because we tend to
wear more clothes on windy days and only out extremities behave like baked-bean tins. (pp.
And on page 153 there is this lovely turn of phrase: "...(I)n extreme cold, the breath turns to
crackling ice crystals when exhaled, a phenomenon that has been called by the magical name of
the ‘whispering of the stars.'"
In Professor Ashcroft's chapter on running, she discusses the process used by the East Germans
to produce winners for that state. Using drugs to enhance performance is nothing new: coca
leaves have been chewed by Andes farmers for centuries just so to keep working; and the
Chinese laborers on the Western railroads used opium for the same reason. But the process of
drug abuse in East Germany has several things to note: 1) here was the state using drugs on its
own citizens; 2) the physicians and physiologists who ran the sports program for the state in East
Germany very consciously administered illegal substances to the athletes in spite of known
consequences and, while some of them have been punished, the entire episode deserves more
attention as an example of science run amok. It is a beautiful example of my argument that
science is a willing whore just set the price right.
In writing about freezing cells, Professor Ashcroft mentions that HeLa cells are to be found in
laboratories around the world. She doesn't mention , however, that those same cells have been
the source of monumental contamination in those same laboratories. They are, as someone or
other has said, the cells that will not die. (p.301)
There is a brief mention of Kary Mullis and his justifiable award of the Nobel Prize for his
discovery of the PCR technique. It is here described as the "workhorse of molecular biology." (p.
303) At the same time, she adds, "A brilliant but colourful character, Mullis offended many
members of the scientific establishment with his flamboyant statements and unconventional
lectures punctuated with slides of surfing or of his girlfriends in compromising positions." Ah, I
would have like to have seen more on this point.
While there's not much here on scientific dishonesties, there is a good deal of oddball facticity
and wonderful details no one can ever possibly remember. If you'd like the altitude at which
blood boils, or the depths achieved in the first submersible, or the methods of climbing Everest
without oxygen, it's all wonderfully here in a most readable book. Pop science at its best!