Contributor corner: Frank Swain

Frank SwainFrank Swain writes and talks about science. He has a history of making zines, being a filthy scenester, stage-managing burlesque shows, climbing buildings, harrying his betters, arguing the toss and generally being a force for good.

Frank is Communities Editor at New Scientist, and has written for the Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Wired, New Scientist, BBC Focus, BBC Future, Slate, Microbiologist, Stylist, Salon, IET, Rhizome, and Plastic Rhino among others. He is the creator of Futures Exchange on Medium and SciencePunk at National Geographic’s ScienceBlogs portal. His broadcast work includes developing and presenting programs for BBC Radio 4 and Bravo. Previously, he worked at the Royal Statistical Society, heading a government-funded project to develop science workshops for journalists.

His first book, How to Make a Zombie, was published in 2013 by OneWorld Publications.

Twitter: @sciencepunk

What is your feature about?

It’s about experiments in suspended animation - the idea that maybe one day we'll be able to put our bodies on hold, either for medical reasons, or because we want to check out for a little while. We tend to think of life and death as binary terms, but there's a surprising breadth of intermediate states between the two.

What did you learn that you didn't expect?

I was surprised to find out just how physically demanding hibernation is. We tend to think of it as a deep sleep, but it's a set of mechanisms that evolved to combat deplorable conditions of cold and starvation. Warm-blooded animals are not supposed to be able to live for six months at five degrees centigrade with no food. And yet somehow hibernators have figured out a way to do that. Everything in these animals' bodies likes to work at warm temperatures, generously supplied by nutrients and oxygen. Convincing these systems - blood flow, cell repair, breathing, brain activity - to function in the cold on a fraction of their normal energy supplies, and counteracting all of the problems this creates, is nothing short of amazing. Ground squirrels hibernate in the cold earth for seven months of the year. For them, waking life is the aberration; a brief island of hot light and energy that interrupts their natural state.

Read Frank’s feature on Mosaic, publishing 6 May 2014.