Oh My Science: Freezing Death in its Tracks: The Hopeful Field of Cryonics

Imagine you have cancer. Breathing is difficult; the cancer has metastasized in your lungs and you are sure you’re on your way out any day. It’s inevitable. Would you want to put that on pause for a few decades while science sorts itself out, and wake up later a cured person, ready to resume your life in a potentially different century? That’s the idea that many people (around 270 so far) have adopted as a hopeful alternative to immediate death. The field of cryonics (cryo=greek for “icy cold”) aims to preserve people at below-freezing temperatures, suspending their life and body in frozen stillness, until they can be reawoken with to-be-discovered technology. It seems like science fiction, and as of right now, the success of human cryopreservation remains as such. There have been several instances of cryopreserved tissues, insects, and human embryos that were successfully revived after undergoing cryopreservation, but adult human trials have not been conducted. Many scientists believe they have plenty of evidence that EVENTUALLY, cryopreservation can be used to stall death. Its only a matter of time. The goal is to preserve the brain and the tissues of the body exactly how they are at the time of death. In a materialist worldview, freezing the brain also preserves the person’s personality, memories, and life. In the off chance that a cure can’t be found for whatever killed the person in the first place, future scientists may be able to revive the personality of person or somehow store that person’s connectome (that is, the exact pattern and physiological characteristics of neurons) for later use. Some cryonics institutes offer neuropreservation only, where the somewhat-more-creepy “frozen heads” concept becomes an option instead of preserving the whole body. As far as I’ve discovered, however, neuropreservation is not what most people choose. As of now, cryopreservation can only be performed in legally dead people, because otherwise it would either be categorized as homicide or assisted suicide. When a person elects to undergo cryopreservation, his or her body is lowered in temperature as quickly as possible after death, then frozen entirely with various methods, which often include liquid nitrogen. Upon leaving the site of death, a pump keeps the blood moving throughout the body while dry ice packed around the body begins the cooling. When the body arrives at the cryonics site, they cool it further in a specialized box that lowers the body temperature to about -150 °C (i.e. very, very cold). Then the wait begins. What fascinates me most about this movement is their faith that eventually, it’s probably going to work. It’s a faith based in evidence and an imaginative approach to how science will grow, but I don’t think it’s founded on gibberish. The knowledge we have now enables us to make educated guesses as to how far the antiaging, health and cryonics field will go. If we can freeze and unfreeze human embryos that can turn out developmentally normal, what’s to say we can’t freeze and unfreeze whole humans? Once we develop the right tools to do it, we’ll be able to freeze people long enough to find a way to fix someone so they can continue life in full health. Some questions that come to my mind are more logistic (money, timing, emergencies, wills and property management) and philosophical than scientific, especially in reference to when a person wakes up. What if I was frozen at the same age as my mother or father was when they died? When I wake up, imagine the complications of that relationship. “I’m YOUR age, Mother! I’ve lived the same length of time (technically speaking).” Or, what about all the technology an 80-something will have to learn? It will likely be an entirely different world. We might wake up in space. Countless science fiction writers have explored cryonics and its relationship to space travel or to technological advances in health care, but what will actually happen? Who knows. I just hope I’m around long enough to find out, or have the opportunity to wake up from a freezing sleep when it does. The path of cryonics will be interesting to follow. It started out as a way to pause death so we could find out a way to defeat it more permanently, whether it was to reverse some kind of cardiac condition or cure a form of cancer we can’t deal with currently. Maybe if we can figure out how to stop aging, cryogenics will be REALLY advantageous; we’re not just putting off an inevitable death,

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we’re letting people choose when they wish to go, if at all (but that’s an entirely different discussion). If you’re interested in exploring more, here is a mini documentary that answers some basic questions and gets a little bit into the philosophy of cryogenics. “We Will Live Again” from Brooklyn Underground Films.

Other reading: 1. http://www.cryonics.org/ — This website is from the company that the first pioneer of cryonics, Robert Ettinger, started in the mid 1970s. Dr. Ettinger had a fascinating philosophy and quite the imagination with his science. 2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cryonics — The wikipedia article has some great links to other related concepts within cryonics, including ethics and information-theoretic death. 3. http://www.alcor.org/ — The other well-known cryonics institute’s website, Alcor Life Extension Foundation.