Tag: Birdseye

From flash freezing to social freezing

Monday, 27 October, 2014 0 Comments

One of the joys of reading Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World lies in the many ways the author riffs on the butterfly effect. For example, the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans marked not just the end of the Roman Empire and a huge setback for Christendom; it also led to an exodus of glass makers. Many of them found a welcome in Venice, but because their furnaces caused numerous conflagrations of the city’s wooden houses, they were exiled again, this time to the island of Murano, where they could do less damage. There, they flourished in a kind of watery Silicon Valley and came up with astonishing ideas thanks to their co-operation and competition with each other.

How We Got to Now One of these innovations plays a key role in Las Meninas, the great painting by Diego Velázquez. This Spanish masterpiece mixes reality and illusion and puts royalty in perspective by having the king and queen, Felipe IV and María de Austria, reflected in a mirror at the back of the room. The mirror was another Murano byproduct. By coating the back of crystal-clear glass with an amalgam of tin and mercury, the island’s glass makers created a shiny, reflective surface and the mirror was born.

Another example. In the chapter titled “Cold”, Johnson recounts the story of Clarence Birdseye, an eccentric American naturalist and entrepreneur, who moved his family to the Canadian wilds of Labrador in 1916. While fishing with some local Inuit, he noticed that the trout they pulled out of carved holes in the ice froze solid in seconds and tasted fresh and crisp when thawed out and cooked. He became obsessed with the puzzle of why ice-fished trout tasted better than the rest of the family’s frozen food and eventually figured out that it was all in the speed of the freezing process. Back in New York City, Clarence Birdseye created a flash-freezing food business and he sold his company for millions in June 1929, just before the Wall Street Crash. Today, Birdseye’s name is synonymous with frozen food.

The frozen food culture Birdseye created “would do more than just populate the world with fish sticks,” notes Johnson. The revolutionary thing is that “It would also populate the world with people, thanks to the flash freezing and cryopreservation of human semen, eggs, and embryos… Today, new techniques on oocyte cryopreservation are allowing women to store more eggs in their younger years, extending their fertility well into their forties and fifties in many cases. So much of the freedom in the way we have children now… would have been impossible without the invention of flash freezing.”

Seeing that companies are now promoting oocyte cryopreservation for their female employees, a more user-friendly term is needed for the process, hence, “social freezing.”

Steven Johnson’s How We Got to Now is nourishing food for thought.