Friday, October 27, 2006


Cryonics is a medical procedure aimed at preserving the bodies of terminal patients until such time as advanced medical procedures can provide for their resuscitation. To revive a patient in a state of cryopreservation would require not only curing the cause of death, which would be the easy part, but also reversing the damage caused by storing the body in liquid nitrogen at temperatures below -200 C.

A process resembling cryonics was envisioned by Benjamin Franklin as early as 1772. Franklin wrote to a friend:

“I wish it were possible… to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But… in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.”

Surprising to reflect upon the possibility that a beta version of Franklin’s desired cask exists today in the form of Bigfoot Dewars, the thermos-like vacuum flasks in which cryonics patients are stored.

Bigfoot Dewar

There are no shortage of critics of cryonics who maintain that it would be impossible to revive someone placed in suspension regardless of any future technological developments. Dr Arthur Rowe, a cryobiologist often quoted by opponents of cryonics, claimed that believing cryonics could reanimate someone who had been frozen is like “believing you can turn hamburger back into a cow.” On a similar note, I was actually taught in high school by my physics teacher that cryonics could never work because when you freeze human tissue ice crystals form causing irreparable damage to the cells. As it turns out, these might have been a pertinent issues with early, failed experiments in cryonics, but they do not concern the methods used at Alcor, established in 1972. There is currently a process of tissue preservation in use called vitrification that preserves cells in a glassy solid state without the formation of ice crystals.

Some of the evidence supporting the feasibility of cryonics came as early as 1984, when a cardiothoracic surgery researcher at the UCLA school of medicine named Jerry Leaf helped develop a cryopreservant blood substitute shown to be capable of sustaining life in dogs for up to four hours. Leaf, who was involved in special operations during the Vietnam War that had over a 50% mortality rate, stated in an interview in 1986,

“I left my fear of death somewhere in the jungles of Vietnam. To this day, I have absolutely no fear of death, only the fear of not being able to save someone else that I care about. It’s not that I don’t want life for myself, because I do very much. I only have positive feelings towards life. I want more of it.”

Leaf was himself cryopreserved at Alcor in 1991 following a fatal heart attack.

Jerry Leaf with a survivor of reanimation

More recently, an article published in 2006 in Wired Magazine reports that Hasan Alam, a trauma surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital, has successfully suspended and revived pigs, over two hundred of them, for an hour each. This evidence all demonstrates that stopping the heart from beating does not positively denote the irremediable termination of life, if the existence of present-day defibrillators and heart transplant surgery weren’t already a sufficient demonstration of that fact.

A cryonics policy at Alcor can be secured through a life insurance policy, meaning that it can be paid for over the course of 25 years. If one happens to be younger than 60, chances are that if one started making monthly payments now, for about the cost of a cable television bill one could pay off a cryonics policy well before the actual medical intervention is needed. Some might contend that such a considerable sum of money would better be spent on those in dire poverty rather than invested in a method of life extension that’s never been demonstrated to work. However, those same voices of dissent will routinely spend the same amount, if not greater sums, on medical bills to extend the length of morbidity—that is, adding extra months and years to the time of greatest physical pain and mental deterioration.

To say that human civilization will never devise a means to revive patients from cryopreservation is an extreme statement, considering that before the 20th century heavier-than-air flight was generally considered scientifically impossible. There was no precedent for it in nature and no sign of its existence before the Wright brothers engineered its invention. For a terminal patient to wait in cryonic suspension for the entirety of the 21st century without hope of revival would require the extinction of our culture’s concern for scientific inquiry. All the available evidence points to its one-day being attainable. Imagining that one is granted the freedom to choose between suspension and burial, I would argue that there is an obvious rational basis to opting for cryonics.

Links to further material:

Alcor's website
The Molecular Repair of the Brain by Ralph Merkle
Death in the Deep Freeze television documentary
Suspended Animation by Vitrification video presentation by Brian Wowk at the Immortality Insitute conference


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