Polar protected: Why fish don't freeze

Q. Do cold-water fishes have ice in their blood, or are they equipped with "antifreeze"? Would a couple of quarts of fish juice protect a car radiator during winter? –Penn Zoil

A. Some fishes in polar or cold temperate regions are exposed to seawater at -2 degrees C, with ice crystals entering via gills or by ingestion, says the University of Illinois' Arthur DeVries. But glycoproteins (or proteins) in the blood bind to the ice crystals and inhibit their growth, affording a sort of antifreeze protection.

If not for this, vast areas of the world's cold waters might be devoid of fishes, and the creatures feeding on them. The Earth would be a far different biological place.

But don't imagine these proteins would work in a car engine, says University of Houston chemist Anthony Haymet.

These are ice growth inhibitors, not traditional antifreezes that may be called on to protect a car to -40 C.

Another antifreeze trick is seen in frogs that allow their bodywater to freeze only after moving it between cells– not inside where cell walls would burst, says Yale's David Skelly. "Somehow the frogs can do this and freeze 'solid' and then thaw out and hop away."

"So though fishjuice or bugjuice (good to -6 C) or frogjuice won't help your car," says Haymet, "they just may save your life through aiding cryopreservation of organs or red blood cells where no donor is readily available."

Q. Most of us have heard of the "placebo effect," where patients with health problems begin to feel better even though the fake "medicine" has no active ingredients. How about placebo's "evil twin," the "nocebo effect"? –J.D. Aller

A. Nocebo is Latin for "I will harm." Here you expect a poor outcome and later you get one ("think sick, get sick"), even though there is no clear reason to explain this result, says Robert Ehrlich in 8 Preposterous Propositions. One example is assembly-line hysteria, where a few workers fall sick with vague symptoms like headaches or nausea, and soon many start to feel ill. Another is case-studied patients who think they're being given an emetic– really it's sugar water– and 80 percent do vomit!

In Cantonese, Mandarin, and Japanese, the words for "four" and "death" sound alike, leading to a superstitious fear of 4. David Phillips looked at mortality rates of Chinese– and Japanese-Americans and found deaths from heart disease 27 percent higher on the 4th day of months– with no other identifiable cause. In the famous Framingham Heart Study, women who believed themselves more likely to die of heart disease were actually 3.7 times more likely to do so.

As we all well know but tend to forget at times, the mind can be mighty strong medicine– for good or for ill.

Q. From a Seattle reader: "The world still uses old buildings, for instance the Urnes stave church (c. 1150) in Sogn og Fjordane County in Norway. Will our modern buildings last anywhere near this long?" –F. L. Wright

A. Some old buildings survive because people consider them important and pay whatever it costs to renovate them, says Texas A&M professor of civil engineering Lee L. Lowery Jr.

"Heck, they just tore down our local McDonald's to add a romper room. In contrast, there are a bunch of Italians who paid $30 million to stop some tower in Pisa from falling over. That edifice will likely last practically forever."

Ours is an age of disposables, says Northeastern University architectural historian Elizabeth Cromley. The concrete boxes that house Wal-Marts pay for themselves in eight years and so are soon expendable. The average commercial structure has a lifespan of about 30 years, new housing stock not much more, says the University of Colorado's E. J. Meade. Use of synthetics today makes projecting lifespans tougher.

"That said, our firm just completed a residence of stone, slate, steel, and wood that should last at least 300 years. I myself grew up in a 250- year-old building that once housed a colonial inn."

So the question is cultural, not technological. Buildings today could be made to last as long as the stave church in Norway, or the Pantheon in Rome for that matter, but do we want them to?

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at strangetrue@compuserve.com.