It’s a philosophical question often posed, but if you could, would you want to live forever? What if, barring accidents, you could cheat death? Swap diseased organs for healthy ones, dead brain cells for future memories? For the vast majority of us death is just a fact of life, but to some it is simply a challenge to be surmounted. They call themselves immortalists and they put their faith in the future. They believe in cryonics.
Cryonics, the science of freezing people after death in the hope they can be revived in the future, has long been the stuff of science fiction and Hollywood blockbusters, reserved for bespectacled geeks and muscled-up action heroes. The prospect of life after death – of cheating time, the Reaper and the taxman – is one that has captured the imagination since time immemorial and, belief systems aside, has thus far eluded us.
But people in white lab coats have a habit of turning science fiction into science fact. In 1901, writer H.G. Wells put man on the moon; NASA delivered the real deal in 1969. In the future of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, Captain Kirk has a personal communicator; big deal, who hasn’t these days? And in 1818, Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein reanimated a dead body…
Actually, on that one the men in white got there first – kind of. Because some fifteen years before Shelley’s eponymous scientist brought his monster back from the grip of Hades, real-life Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini (1762 -1834) was astounding and horrifying the scientific world in equal measure with some very macabre experiments of his own.
Following in the footsteps of his uncle, Luigi Galvani (whose own work in the medical uses of electricity became what we now know as galvanism), Aldini postulated that electricity was the vital life force coursing between the brain and the body. In 1803, he visited London and demonstrated his theory in spectacular fashion at the Royal College of Surgeons.
Before an audience of medical contemporaries and the general public, Aldini took conducting rods connected to a battery and passed electricity through the cadaver of one George Forster. According to press reports the results were startling: the “jaw began to quiver… the muscles contorted… the left eye opened… and the whole body convulsed.” To terrified onlookers it must have seemed as if Forster was returning to life.
Aldini made no claim to bringing back the dead, but such was the outrage of his torch-bearing peers that he was forced to flee the country. There is little doubt, however, that his experiments marked the beginning of genuine scientific research into the mechanics of death.
Flash forward one hundred and sixty years (as all budding immortalists are hoping to do) and we find the start of cryonics theory proper.
In 1964 Robert Ettinger, a college physics teacher, published The Prospect of Immortality. In what is now considered the cryonicists’ bible, Ettinger argued that technology and medicine were advanced enough to start freezing people as a means of accessing the medical technology of tomorrow. What appears to be fatal today, he conjectured, may be reversible in the future. “If civilization endures, medical science should eventually be able to repair almost any damage to the human body, including freezing damage and senile debility or other cause of death. No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us.”
Ettinger may have been the godfather of cryonics, but it is Alcor who hold the baby’s head, as it were, in the hands of Doctor James Bedford – a psychology professor generally regarded as the world’s first cryonically preserved human on 12th January 1967. He’s still on ice in their storage facility to this day, frozen in time like a pickled egg-head.
On their website Alcor claim to have furthered the cause of the cryonics movement more than any other organisation, citing their willingness to embrace new medical procedures and emerging technologies as part of their success – but such advances have not come without controversy.
In 1987 Saul Kent, one of the founders of the Cryonics Society of New York, brought his terminally ill mother Dora to the Alcor facility, where she died and was placed in cryostasis as a neuropatient – preservation of the head and brain only (the thinking being that future scientists will simply clone a whole new body from the subject’s DNA). The body, minus the head, was passed on to the local coroner who issued a death certificate giving the cause of death as natural causes. Following an autopsy, however, the coroner’s office changed the cause of death to homicide when the presence of barbiturate was detected throughout Dora Kent’s body. Alcor was raided, the staff arrested and the facility ransacked. Computers and records were seized by police.
Alcor insisted that the barbiturate had been given to Kent after legal death in order to slow brain metabolism, but the coroner’s office was sufficiently concerned to want to seize the head for autopsy. The head, however, had been removed from the Alcor facility and taken to a location that, to this day, has never been disclosed. It was a macabre event, but Alcor later sued for false arrest and illegal seizure and won both cases – setting a precedent for other cryonics organisations. Since then, most if not all cryopreservations have taken place without incident or from legal interference.
The science of cryonics is, of course, still in its infancy – much of it still theory, all of it based on a tenet of hope: that future science will somehow have all the answers. In that respect, in the belief of life after death, cryonics is a much a religion as it is a science. After all, while it isn’t too difficult to preserve a dead body, that body is still dead. And when you’re dead, you’re dead, right? So how do you un-pickle a pickled egg? Well, the men and women in their proverbial whites have been working on that one too.
In 2005 scientists at the University of Pittsburgh announced they had successfully placed dogs in suspended animation and then brought them back to life. The dogs’ circulatory systems were drained of blood, which was replaced by a low-temperature saline solution. After three hours of being clinically dead, the dogs’ blood was then returned to them, and the animals given an electric shock to the heart. All of them returned to life; all without brain damage. A year later doctors at the Massachusetts General Hospital announced they had achieved similar result using pigs, reporting a 90% success rate on 200 test cases. It’s gruesome, but it seems Giovanni Aldini wasn’t so wide of the mark.
But dogs are dogs, and pigs are pigs; and man is another beast altogether. Medical and technological limits aside, perhaps the biggest obstacle cryonics must surmount is the one many scientific advances have faced: the theological question. Science and religion are rarely good bed-fellows, but the possibility of cheating death must surely place cryonics head and shoulders over other religious concerns surrounding, say, cloning or stem-cell research. After all, if science finally brings us to immortality, then whither religion? God, or rather his representatives here on earth, would be out of a job.
It seems unusual then to find little opposition to cryonics from organised religion, perhaps because they still have the monopoly on the one thing science cannot yet determine: the existence of the human soul. Indeed, some cryonicists have even courted controversy by claiming Jesus was a committed immortalist, rising as he supposedly did from the dead, which has produced some social media challenges to cryonics on religious grounds but as yet no pronouncements from theological bodies such as the Roman Catholic Church.
Dennis Kowalski, current President of the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, sees the religious question in pragmatic terms: “Just as the first heart transplants were considered controversial to some religious beliefs, so cryonics faces some negative feedback from those who misunderstand it. But those who do understand cryonics range from atheists to all denominations of religion. Just as you can be religious or atheist and opt for or against a heart transplant based on your beliefs, so too can you support or oppose cryonics.”
So what does it cost, life in the freezer? At the time of writing, the bill for keeping the Grim Reaper from knocking varies greatly – from a mere $10,000 for head or brain preservation at KriosRus, to a whopping $250,000 for the full body suspension at Alcor. Belying their own visionary leanings somewhat, all the cryonics companies require payment upfront – usually with an additional yearly fee to cover those little unforeseen circumstances such as natural disasters or utility companies upping their prices.
The Cryonics Institute fee currently does not include the extras, which aren’t optional at all, such as a standby team of cryonic professionals waiting for death – sorry, deanimation – and commencing procedures at the bedside. Nor do they offer rapid transportation where said professionals aren’t immediately available. Those services can be covered by an extra fee to the Florida-based company Suspended Animation Inc.
But what will it really cost, life in the future? Philosophically speaking, returning to life in 400 years time would make us a ghost of things past – an exhibit in the museum of a more “civilised culture”. What would we be to that culture other than an amusing ancestor to be poked and prodded at like the savage in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World? And what would be the social and political implications of a population that can extend its life indefinitely? As committed cryonicists point out: there’s only one to find out.
The growth of the cryonics movement has been slow from the very beginning, often beset with medical, legal and philosophical problems and suffering a lack of business support. Scientific interest has been, for the most part, cautious, while the threat of government intervention has been a constant concern. Robert Ettinger, a confirmed atheist, saw the problem in almost religious terms: “The tragedy of the slow growth of immortalism pertains mostly to them, and perhaps to you – not so much to us, the immortalists. We already have made our arrangements for cryostasis after clinical death, signed our contracts with existing organisations and allocated the money. We will have our chance, and with a little bit of luck will taste the ‘wines of centuries unborn.’”
Paying tribute to his father in 2011, David Ettinger said “My father devoted himself to doing what he could to enable his family, his friends and others to come back and live again. Whether he will achieve that nobody knows at this point, but we think he has a good shot.”
True to his beliefs, Robert Ettinger was cryopreserved alongside his deanimated mother and his two wives. Whatever their future holds, if they bring them all back it’s going to be complicated.