Cryonics: The ‘ambulance to the future’

About 100 people—including former baseball star Ted Williams—have had their bodies placed in cryonic suspension in the hope they’ll someday be brought back to life. Is there any chance they will walk the earth again?

What is cryonics?

It’s a technique for preserving the dearly, and perhaps temporarily, departed. Believers, or cryonicists, call the deep freeze an “ambulance to the future.” The theory is that one day, doctors will find cures for cancer, heart disease, and the other causes of death that are currently so troublesome. Cryonicists have their bodies flash-frozen shortly after death, betting that one day, they can be restored to life, cured of what ailed them, and sent on their way. “At that point,” Ralph Merkle, a board member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, tells The Miami Herald, “when they wake up, they’d say, ‘I made it! Let’s go and get a pizza!’”

How are bodies frozen?

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The body is immediately packed in ice, to prevent tissue from decaying, and hooked up to a heart-lung machine, which pumps an anti-coagulant through the veins. At the cryonics lab, attendants flush out the blood, and replace it with a glycerin-based solution that acts as a sort of antifreeze, to minimize cell damage from subzero temperatures. The “patient,” as cryonics advocates call the corpse, is placed in a polyester sleeping bag. It is cooled slowly using dry ice, then submerged in a tank filled with liquid nitrogen and chilled to minus 320 degrees.

Is it expensive?

Prices vary at the four cryonics companies. Alcor, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., charges $120,000 for a full-body suspension. For those of lesser means, Alcor offers a head-only option for $50,000. The premise here is that by the time science is sufficiently advanced to revive the people in deep freeze, doctors will be able to grow the head a whole new body. The Michigan-based Cryonics Institute will only freeze the whole body, at a cost of $28,000 for “members,” who sign up ahead of time, and $35,000 for procrastinators. Either way, the facilities ask for complete payment upfront. Relatives, an Alcor official once said, “tend to lose interest in paying for old frozen Uncle Ed after eight or nine years go by.”

How many people have been frozen?

So far, about 100, including Ted Williams, whose heirs are fighting a court battle over whether he wanted to be frozen. About a dozen of the 100 have chosen the head-only option. The four companies say another 1,000 living people are signed up to be put into the big chill upon their deaths.

Will cryonics work?

Even the true believers aren’t entirely sure. They say they’re putting their faith in medical advances that could be hundreds of years down the road. But the believers point to the new discipline of nanotechnology as a reason for hope; if scientists can now manipulate individual molecules and even atoms, the cryonicists say, they may develop the ability to repair cells and even individual molecules damaged during the freezing process. Bodies in cryonic suspension are therefore not dead, at least not permanently, says Keith Hansen, a California computer consultant who plans to be frozen when he dies. “To us they are friends who are gravely injured,” says Hansen, “but the final outcome is still in doubt.”

What do scientists say?

Cryonics, most of them think, is an elaborate fraud. “The body is dead when you freeze it,” says John Bischof, a biomedical engineer at the University of Minnesota. “That’s already an insurmountable problem.” Many cryobiologists, who study the effects of low temperatures on living cells, say freezing and thawing would damage the structure of moisture-filled cells. Due to the different water levels in various organs, fissures might even develop. “You could get a crack through the whole body—drop off a hand here, a leg there,” Bischof says. Cryobiologist Arthur Rowe once famously said that “believing cryonics could reanimate somebody who has been frozen is like believing you can turn hamburger back into a cow.”

Even so, where is the harm?

For one thing, says University of Miami medical ethicist Kenneth Goodman, it’s a waste of money. Rather than pay $120,000 to Alcor to achieve immortality, he says, you might just as well “buy a ticket to Andromeda on the Neptunian mother ship.” Besides, other scientists say, there is absolutely no reason to believe that memories, personality traits, skills, knowledge, or any other part of what defined the person would survive death and years immersed in liquid nitrogen. Finally, the skeptics question why people from, say, the year 2150, when the earth might have 15 billion inhabitants, would take great pains to add a few thousand thawed corpses to the crowd.

So why bother?

Consider the alternative. As the Cryonics Institute Web site says, going into the freezer offers the “only hope for the elderly or terminally ill, or for those who die suddenly.” Doctors can already perform miracles our ancestors never imagined possible. They can freeze sperm, eggs, and even early embryos, and thaw them to produce healthy babies. They can freeze blood, then warm it again and pump it into an ailing patient’s veins. If medicine keeps marching forward, Alcor’s Web site says, there is no reason to believe human beings will not be able to triumph over “the event we now refer to as ‘death.’”

The father of cryonics

As a kid in the 1920s, Robert Ettinger was fascinated by the promise of the future. “I just grew up taking it for granted that we would learn to cure old age,” he tells Salon.com. Ettinger remembered reading a science-fiction story called “The Jameson Satellite,” about a professor who had his body encased in a satellite and sent into orbit. After millions of years, aliens found professor Jameson, implanted his brain into a robot body, and revived him. Ettinger resolved to make the fantasy come true. He spent years researching ways to extend the human life span, and in 1962 launched the cryonics movement with his book, The Prospect of Immortality. A few years later, psychology professor James Bedford became the first person to be put in cryonic suspension. Ettinger, a physics professor, froze his first “patient”—his own mom—in 1977. His first wife followed 10 years later, as did his second wife last year. Now the leader of the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute, Ettinger, 83, said he is readying for the day when he, too, will become a patient, and begin the long, cold wait for a family reunion.

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