rotten > Library > Medicine > Cryonics


There's a certain irrefutable logic to cryonics which goes something like this: What have you got to lose?

What indeed? If you've got the cash to spare, then why not have your corpse frozen until some time in the unspecified future, when people will be able to cure whatever caused your death.

While a "slim" chance maybe be better than "no" chance, the odds that you will successfully be reanimated at some point in the future are pretty forbidding, even relative to things like winning the lottery or making an unsatisfactory lover change for the better.

Since the time of ancient Egypt, mankind has been trying to preserve corpses in the hope of future reanimation. In case you hadn't noticed, this effort has been 100% unsuccessful to date.

Cryonics per se (also known as cryogenics), the art of freezing a body to prevent decomposition, is a younger science but it's still been around long enough to demonstrate why it's a bad bet.

Part of the problem with cryonics is that, much like time travel, there's really no big reason why it shouldn't work, it's just that we have no idea how it actually could work.

Microbes, fish and a few other low-order cold-blooded life forms can in fact be frozen alive and thawed back to life. Depending on the specific critter, you can re-animate months, years or millennia later.

Having observed this process, scientists began to speculate that you could freeze people who had died from some currently incurable disease or the currently incurable malady known as "old age," and thaw them out some time in the future, after science has figured out the way to cure their ailments.

The notion of cryonics as a formal "scientific" discipline in which people are put on ice for future reanimation more or less originated with a 1964 book called "The Prospect of Immortality," by a college professor named Robert Ettinger.

Ettinger's book began with a quite inspiring, if utterly misguided, introduction to the notion. Emphasis in the passage below is that of the author, who was enamored of italics long before desktop publishing put them within the reach of the ordinary citizen:

Most of us now living have a chance for personal, physical immortality.

This remarkable proposition-which may soon become a pivot of personal and national life-is easily understood by joining one established fact to one reasonable assumption.

The fact: At very low temperatures it is possible, right now, to preserve dead people with essentially no deterioration, indefinitely. (Details and references will be supplied.)

The assumption: 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. (Definite reasons for such optimism will be given.)

Hence we need only arrange to have our bodies, after we die, stored in suitable freezers against the time when science may be able to help us. No matter what kills us, whether old age or disease, and even if freezing techniques are still crude when we die, sooner or later our friends of the future should be equal to the task of reviving and curing us. This is the essence of the main argument.

The arrangements will no doubt be handled at first by individuals, then by private companies, and perhaps later by the Social Security system.

It's hard to even know where to begin trashing this proposition. But let's start with the science.

The sales pitch for most cryonics facilities will tell you that there's a virtually endless amount of scientific support for the effectiveness of cryonics, in fact, so much support that "a quick summary is impossible," as one "institute" puts it.

Interestingly, a quick summary of the evidence AGAINST cryonics turns out to be rather simple. Yes, it's possible to preserve corpses without deterioration... if the deterioration you're talking about is visible stinky rot.

The process of freezing causes its own damage, as Ettinger concedes. He assumes that future peoples will be able to fix this damage. Unfortunately, this is extremely unlikely.

Did you ever stick a can of soda in the freezer only to discover later that it blew up? That's because water expands when it's frozen. The cells of the human body are filled with water. Perhaps you can see where this is going.

While it's possible to cushion certain kinds of cells (like sperm and embryos) from this effect under certain conditions, these techniques are so far completely ineffective on the macro scale of a human body (or any mammal, for that matter).

So when you cryonically freeze someone (assuming you do the whole body and not just the head), you physically explode every single cell in the body, just like that soda can.

Since there are more than 10 trillion cells in the average adult human body, that's an awful lot of exploding. Assuming you found some microsurgical technique to even repair the exploded cells in the first place, you would then have to repeat the process more than 10 trillion times to fix the freezing damage.

Furthermore, many of these calls are inconveniently located in what the scientists refer to as the "inside" of the human body, which would additionally require our intrepid reanimator to take the body apart to the cellular level, repair it, then reassemble the 10 trillion cells in the correct order.

If you try to explain this to a cryonics proponent, they will smugly respond "nanotechnology," a word derived from the Greek root nanos, which means "dwarf" (as used in the sentence "My dwarfish intellect has been dwarfed by a gigantic wave of wishful thinking"). If someone tells you they are relying on nanotechnology to solve their problems, suggests you sell them some Florida swampland or a nice bridge in Brooklyn.

Future technology could certainly make cryonics more viable, if they can figure out a way around the exploding cell thing. But the cell thing needs to be fixed before the freezing, and not afterward.

The second big scientific problem is that, unlike the frozen fish and eels that cryonics supporters love to cite, the people being frozen in cryonics labs are DEAD (except for a few mad scientists out somewhere we don't know about).

The fish and eels that pop back to happy life after freezing were both alive and healthy when they froze. The people are DEAD. Let's repeat that, again, in capital letters: DEAD. DEAD. DEAD. And nearly all of those people, before being dead, were very, very old or very, very sick. There's a mighty big difference between thawing out a live healthy eel and a dead decrepit geezer.

Many cryonics labs also offer a discount service in which only the head is frozen (a full-body freeze costs $120,000 or more). Medical science is not currently able to graft a head onto a body with a viable result, nor is medical science able to keep heads alive using an artificial body or by any other means.

So, let's sum up the scientific aspect here. According to Ettinger, "our future friends" will have to accomplish the following before any cryonics subjects will be thawed and reanimated:

  • Repairing trillions of damaged cells in a cost-effective manner (or at all).
  • Taking a human body apart into 10 trillion individual cells and then putting it back together.
  • Curing whatever ailment or disease that the frozen subject had been suffering from.
  • Bringing dead people back to life.
  • Grafting heads onto new bodies, whether mechanical or biological (optional).
As you can see the science of cryonics is fairly dicey. Depressingly enough, however, the science isn't the really biggest problem in this equation.

The much bigger issue is: Who the fuck wants to see your icy ass reanimated?

Let's just forget Ettinger's ludicrous notion that Social Security will pay for all this someday. Senior citizens can't even get the prescription drugs they need to stay alive. It's hard to imagine a point at which the federal budget is willing to appropriate trillions of dollars to freeze every American citizen who dies.

But skip that. Look at this from the point of view of human society.

Even if you're Albert Einstein (and you're not), there is ABSOLULTELY NO REASON why society would EVER get around to bringing your frozen corpse back to life. PERIOD. Einstein was a brilliant guy, but science has already passed him by. In another 50 or 100 years, his groundbreaking work will be kindergarten science.

And old Uncle Albert hasn't even been frozen, now has he? Legend states Walt Disney was frozen, but that's actually a lie. The only notable person to be frozen in the history of cryonics so far is baseball legend Ted Williams, whose severed head was apparently tossed around the cryonics lab like a dodge ball. And it's not at all clear that Williams even wanted to be frozen in the first place.

Let's walk through the logic here. What possible reasons could society have for reanimating corpses?

  • Not enough people. While this could potentially be a problem someday, we're currently in the exact opposite situation. The ranks of humanity could literally be decimated by 99.9% and there would still be MORE than 6 million people left, which is FAR more than enough to maintain a healthy gene pool. To actually kill 99.9% of the human race in the first place would require a cataclysmic catastrophe of such gargantuan proportions that the cryonic freezing labs would have their power cut off LONG before there would be any thought that the world needed more people. And most cryonics customers are well past optimum breeding age.
  • Ancestral loyalty: Can you name three reasons why you'd like to have your great-great-grandfather around at breakfast time? You probably don't even know his name. Now, consider that you'd not only have him over for breakfast, but you would also be responsible for feeding him, clothing him and housing him, walking him through the long process of catching up with modern society (including, quite possibly, teaching him a new language), and relieving his boredom with pointless and meandering conversation for hours on end, since he has no marketable job skills and all his old friends are dead.
  • You Are Special. Sure, there's no compelling reason to bring those other stiffs back to life, but you're special. Who wouldn't want you around, right? Perhaps you've invented Windows, or you've become a pop superstar. Nice try. Ted Williams, mentioned above, is a pretty perfect example of why cryonics is so pointless. Who wants to see him again? It's been decades since he could play baseball, and he wasn't good for much else. He couldn't even work up sufficient ambition to have a memoir ghost-written on his behalf. The only profession with any real staying power through posterity is "poet," and they're the last people who would undertake this sort of idiocy. Plus you can't tell which ones are worth keeping until 50 years after they're dead anyway, and they don't have the cash to pay the refrigeration bills.
Consider mummies, the original experiment in reanimation. Can you cite one real life example of anyone trying to reanimate a mummy? And those guys were KINGS. Who the hell are you?

There is only one person in all of history weird enough and beloved enough to have pulled this one off. His name was Elvis and it's too late for him. If Elvis had chosen to have his corpse frozen, SOMEONE would eventually have found a way to reanimate him. Someone, somewhere, somehow.

But Elvis didn't, and everyone else is fucked. Better luck next afterlife.


Apr 1773 In a letter to Jacques Barbeu Dubourg, Benjamin Franklin writes: "I wish it were possible, from this instance, 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 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."
1964 Robert Ettinger writes the classic "The Prospect of Immortality," leading many people to waste time and money on cryonics.
16 Aug 1977 Elvis Presley dies in his home at the age of 42, while sitting on the toilet. His body is not frozen, and begins to decompose.
2 Oct 1977 The bodies of Elvis Presley and his mother Gladys are moved from Forest Hill Cemetery to the Meditation Garden at Graceland. Elvis is again not frozen. Irrevocable decomposition sets in. The future loses a legacy and a Vegas attraction for New Year's Eve 2525. Unless he's cloned from a tooth.
July 2002 Baseball great Ted Williams dies. His children get into an ugly custody battle over the disposition of his remains, which eventually end up frozen and consigned to cryogenic storage... in pieces.
February 2004 No one has figured out how to re-animate baseball great Ted Williams yet. Or anyone else.

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