Thursday, October 29, 2009

IS DEATH DEAD?: The Truth About Eternal Life Through Cryonics

Above: Another one bites the dust... And prepares to un-bite it somewhere in the unforeseeable future.

Left: Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, unofficial poster boy for the American Cryonics Society.

We are all aware, to some extent, of the emerging scientific field of cryogenics. From the cryopreserved-head jokes on Futurama to the premises of films like Alien, Demolition Man, and Woody Allen's Sleeper to the urban legends about Walt Disney (false) and Ted Williams (true), the idea of freezing tissue and/or bodies for future use and/or resurrection is a fantastic one, albeit a lot closer to science fact than you probably think.
Cryogenics (and its more specific cousins cryobiology and cryonics) is a field that came to being around the mid 60's, and was brought into the public eye with the incorporation of the American Cryonics Society in 1985. The Society actually began in 1969 in San Francisco as the Bay Area Cryonics Society (or BACS), but almost their entire body of work has been ascribed to the ACS moniker. The ACS functions based on the idea that all diseases -- up to and including death -- will someday be curable, and that humans are able to obtain immortality by being scientifically frozen until the cures make themselves apparent. Re-animation, in their eyes, is no longer the stuff of science fiction and horror films, but an actual, feasible practice, that modern science will have the means to create within 50-200 years (by most hypotheses).

But I'm getting a-head of myself (ZING!). Let us first differentiate between the concepts of "cryogenics", "cryobiology", and "cryonics". From Wikipedia: "In physics, cryogenics is the study of the production of very low temperature (below −150 °C, −238 °F or 123 K) and the behavior of materials at those temperatures." Got that? Now: "Cryobiology is the branch of biology that studies the effects of low temperatures on living things." And lastly: "Cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of humans and animals that can no longer be sustained by contemporary medicine until resuscitation may be possible in the future. Currently, human cryopreservation is not reversible, which means that it is not currently possible to bring people out of cryopreservation alive."
Today we're going to talk CRYONICS. Human cryopreservation, resurrection, and re-animation. The REAL DEAL.

Left: A cryogenic chamber (not actually meant for human bodies).

The American Cryonics Society can be broken down into a variety of smaller societies and groups, each of which has their own distinct outlook and code of ethics. You can check out the official ACS website here and their Wikipedia page here. Closely tied to the ACS are both Michigan's Immortalist Society (whose creation actually predates the ACS) and the Immortality Institute (their mission statement: "to conquer the blight of involuntary death"), as well as several incorporated cryonic facilities, such as Florida's Suspended Animation, Southern California's now-defunct CryoSpan, and Trans Time, located right here in my beloved Bay Area. The basic idea behind the ACS and most of these facilities is to provide their clients (who, upon being frozen, are referred to as "patients") with the gift of immortality for a one-time-only price, as their upkeep is paid for via donations, member fees, and various tax exemptions. Patients are frozen with liquid nitrogen, drained of blood, and stored in their own cryogenic cylinder indefinitely, all for the price of $90,000 to $150,000 (according to Prices are based on a sliding scale, which start with just freezing your decapitated head on the low end and increase up to freezing your entire body on the high end.


But probably the best-known subdivision of the ACS is the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, located in Scottsdale, Arizona. About half of the 150 cryonic "patients" in the world are stored at Alcor's facility (there are another 1,000 people with "pre-need arrangements"), with others stored at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan, KrioRus in Russia (we'll get to that later), and at least one guy in a shed in Colorado (another one we'll get to a little later). Alcor (website here, Wiki here) began as the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia in 1972 and is named after a star located in Ursa Major. Many of the 90 or so freeze-dried folks stored at Alcor are "neuropatients" (i.e. just heads), and Alcor was also intrumental in devising an ice-free method of brain storage known as neurovitrification.

But all is not well at Alcor. An anonymous whistleblower claims that the head of baseball star Ted Williams, cryogenically frozen separate from his torso against his wishes (the request for cryopreservation came from Williams' son), is being stored improperly, resulting in cracking and severe damage to brain tissue. Fuck.
Check it out:

Others have even gone so far as to accuse Alcor of supporting a cult, known widely as 'Alcorians'. While very little evidence of their existence has presented itself on the internet or elsewhere, I invite you to read this public email that I found while researching the subject: "Atlanta Area Alcorians Stand United Against Death". I don't really know what to make of it. Scam? Probably.

Controversy has surrounded Alcor on a couple other occasions as well. In 1994, the Riverside county coroner ruled that Alcor client Dora Kent (Alcor board member Saul Kent's mother) was murdered with barbiturates before her head was removed for neuropreservation by the company's staff. In 1992, another Alcor whistleblower turned taped conversations over to the police, which revealed that an Alcor employee deliberately hastened the death of a terminally ill AIDS patient with an injection of Metubine, a paralytic drug. Charges were never filed in either case. Kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it...

Shit, Penn and Teller debunked the whole "cryonics" thing pretty severely, too. Harsh.

Below: The basic idea.

Short ABC News piece on The American Cryonics Society/Cryonics Institute:

Special mention should also be given to Russia's KrioRus facility (shown above, website here, Wiki here), the first ever cryonic facility located outside the United States. Although KrioRus only houses a dozen patients (some heads, some bodies), they are an excellent alternative for the bargain-hunting cryopreservationist, as their sliding scale runs from only $10,000 to $30,000. Read a lengthy breakdown on KrioRus and cryonics in general (written by "Valeija Pride, KrioRus Committee Member, Fantasy Writer, Transhumanist, and Rock Star") here.

Come tour KrioRus with us!


- If it's cheaper to just freeze your head, and the whole process works under the assumption that you will eventually be cloned from cell tissue, do you think that maybe Alcor would freeze just, like, one of my fingernails on the off chance that that would work, too? For maybe 20 bucks or so? I wouldn't need my own tank or anything. Just let me piggyback with Ted Williams.

- Isn't it kind of obvious that all of these cryonic facilities will be destroyed in some sort of nuclear war or cataclysmic event before the actual defrost cycle begins, anyways? Better off spending that hundred thou on a big-ass sendoff party, with midget waiters and cocaine for all, Freddie Mercury style. Or better yet, fund an underpriviledged blogger's dream of BLOWING UP THE MOON. I'm waiting.

- Do you REALLY want to wake up in the far future? Did you even SEE Encino Man?

Home cryonics: The future of the industry? Ckeck out the strange story of Trygve Bauge, a Norwegian immigrant who set up shop in Nederland, Colorado.

So who's to say whether cryonics is a feasible idea or not? The debunkers are many, but you just can't deny a certain romantic, sci-fi element to the whole topic. Maybe none of these patients will ever get defrosted. Maybe ALL of them will. Maybe one of them gets defrosted, walks outside, and immediately gets hit by a bus. WHO'S LAUGHING NOW, RICH BOY?!!

Not into the whole "freezing" thing? Maybe you should look into some Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (S.E.N.S.). Or just die already. I don't care.

You can also read a great article about one man's very personal experience with Alcor here. That man is the always thought-provoking Sam McPheeters (formerly of Born Against), and the post comes from his award-winning blog, The Loom of Ruin.


Ambassador MAGMA said...

The head of Ted Williams was "damaged" when a worker tried to dislodge a tuna can stuck to the head by hitting it with a wrench. It happens.

I don't understand why you would want to stick around on this shitty planet any longer than you have to. When they were talking about death panels, I was like, YES, PLEASE! Where do I sign up? The future's probably a pretty messed up place.

If they could cryonically send me into the past, then I would go to medieval times and become a wizard. That would totally be worth it! Spaceships = boring. Castles = boner noise.

Shelby Cobras said...

I heard it was more of a Christmas Story scenario, where one of the technicians dared another one to lick Ted's brain. When his tongue got stuck, they had to run warm water over it for 20 minutes or so. Hence the resulting damage.

I thing my boners for spaceships and castles are about equal, though I largely prefer the "future" of 1985 to any sort of "modern future", if that makes sense -- i.e. I'd rather live in Blade Runner than Wall-E. I don't know if you pay much attention to current discoveries in quantum physics, but your desire to travel to the past might be a reality sooner than you think. Once we track down that pesky Higgs-Boson particle...