“In practice, before long the objectors will include only a handful of eccentrics.” — Robert Ettinger, author, The Prospect of Immortality, forefather of modern cryonics, in 1965
“I have some nuanced feelings about death. In general I think that death is obviously not a good thing.” — Ken Hayworth, cognitive neuroscientist, reluctant cryonicist, 2012
I. Mail the Check Before You Die
Some things should not be left to the last minute. For instance, having yourself frozen. The act of being preserved in a giant thermos cooled by liquid nitrogen in the hopes that the scientists of the future will figure out how to revive you and repair whatever it was that drove you to require freezing in the first place is no small matter. There are insurance policies to settle upon. Legal documents to notarize. Relatives to appease. And all of this must be done far enough in advance that arrangements can be made for a field response team to reach you on your deathbed and stand by until a doctor declares you medically deceased, at which time they will leap into action and begin your cryopreservation.
Legally speaking, cryonics is okay because it’s considered an extravagant funeral practice. Its few practitioners would not argue with the notion that the procedure would be more effective if started before the heart has taken its final beats, but to do so would be illegal, even if the soon-to-be-deceased is a willing participant. Thus, the process waits for death, and the longer after death it begins, the worse off you are. This is why the Alcor Life Extension Foundation really doesn’t like to accept last-minute cases. And, yet, shit happens.
The weekly tour at Alcor’s Scottsdale, Arizona headquarters is Tuesday at 10am, and I arrived early, hoping to beat whatever crowd might turn up. But there was no one waiting outside the single-story building, sand-colored like everything in Arizona, and located in an office park just outside the perimeter fence of the Scottsdale airport, where the moguls of greater Phoenix park their Lear jets. There didn’t even appear to be anyone inside, and it took two dings of the electronic doorbell before a harried-seeming woman unlocked the door and eyed me suspiciously.
“The tour has been canceled,” she said. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got an emergency last-minute patient situation.”
Specifically, she was referring to the imminent but complicated arrival of a new “patient” — the body of a 90-year-old retired nightclub owner from Las Vegas who had verbally agreed to be cryopreserved several years before, but never completed his paperwork. It wasn’t until the man’s representatives called in a panic over the weekend to say he was on the verge of his final exit that he 100 percent committed, but before Alcor could go and retrieve his body, it had to wait for a bank transfer from the man’s estate. On a personal level, we tend to keep death distant, to make it almost theoretical, until suddenly it is the realest thing you will ever experience, and then — as people like to say — you come to Jesus. Or, if you’re one of a tiny group of optimistic contrarians, you come to cryonics.
Despite being the largest and most stable of the two operational cryonics facilities in America (the Cryonics Society, outside Detroit, being the other), Alcor has to date frozen fewer than 150 people. The current membership of future frozen persons stands at just over 1,000 people, many of whom are still young and virile, so it is quite infrequent that a cryopreservation actually happens.
“Sometimes months go by,” explained D’Bora Tennant, the company’s office manager and de facto PR/marketing person, and the woman who’d answered the door. “Sometimes we get a couple a month.” She showed me to a seat in the lobby, on a gray suede couch. Behind the couch was a brushed metal partition embossed with Alcor’s logo, and the blue walls of the room were decorated with framed portraits of current inhabitants of the facility’s cold storage. Some had names, and were pictured in happier, still-alive moments, while others were stone-faced portraits with no identification. (It is a member’s choice whether or not to be publicly identified.) There were noticeably more men than women. Other décor included a Japanese screen, a tropical plant with waxy leaves, and a mod coffee table in the shape of a squiggle; the overall theme was modern, with a mid-90s, Z Gallerie vibe, and the blue and brushed metal color scheme felt appropriately chilly.
“We can’t dispatch the team until the money comes through,” Tennant said.
Members pay annual dues while living, plus a single payout upon death, typically covered by insurance, if the member has made Alcor the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. More is certain that Alcor underpriced its services in the early days, and that even today’s price of $200,000 for a full-body preservation is too low. (The $80,000 fee for head-only, or “neuro,” he thinks, is about right. And why this is actually a popular option will be discussed a bit later.) That money, after all, covers suspension for however long it takes, plus revival, once somebody figures out how to make that happen. In the movement’s infancy, patient care was covered by sporadic payments from relatives, and this resulted in shaky finances that ultimately begat disasters (that shall be revealed shortly). Alcor, however, is set up to endure generations, and it takes great effort to be transparent. Funds delivered at a member’s death are put into a Patient Care Trust Fund, and the investment income from this fund is used to support the costs of storage and care. As of 2012, the Fund contained more than $8 million.
Provided the erstwhile nightclub owner’s check cleared soon, Alcor’s field team — led by Medical Response Director Aaron Drake, who I’d seen in the parking lot ferrying hard plastic cases filled with equipment to his truck — could run to the airport and hop a plane for Vegas. But Alcor was racing the clock.
There is no clear consensus as to how long after a person is declared dead that it becomes basically pointless to perform a cryopreservation — certain things, like injecting the blood thinner heparin to prevent blood clots, and getting a body on ice immediately, can stem decay and buy you some time — but More said that Alcor has basically settled on 24 hours as being the window of opportunity. Every single case is different, but once a full day passes, it’s likely futile to perfuse a body with chemicals, and to freeze a person who hasn’t been perfused guarantees the cells will be attacked from the inside by ice crystals, an evil inevitability of freezing.
The timeframe isn’t absolute, however. Each member dictates the limits of his preservation. In rare cases, people choose to have their bodies frozen “under any conditions possible” according to More (and on at least one occasion, a body was buried in the ground, then the remains later dug up and frozen), but the typical member wants to know that he will be reached in enough time that his body has not begun to deteriorate and still looks more post-human than revivified zombie.
Even if everything went right from here, and Drake had no delays en route to Vegas, it was going to be close. More had spent the weekend preparing for the patient’s arrival, but there are only so many parts of the process he can control. Bureaucracy, and especially banking, rushes for no one. So while a man’s corpse was slowly consuming itself in a Las Vegas mortuary, More waited for a bank clerk to punch in fax numbers. “This is why you really don’t want to leave it to last minute,” he said, with a forceful exhale.
We humans have gone to space and cloned numerous species, not to mention invented the Internet, transplanted organs, and successfully installed bionic limbs, but if you were to rank our boldest experiments from least to most hubristic, cryonics would surely rank near the top. Because what it aims to do is to disrupt the one preordained outcome we all share and cannot escape. Life is a 50- or 70- or (if you’ve got good genes and eat enough kale) 90-year menu of choices, every one of them redirecting your path on the map. Until you reach the end, at which point there is absolutely no choice. That’s how it’s been for as long as there have been living organisms, and it’s how it will be until the world melts down. Unless, that is, you are the kind of person who might become a cryonaut.
II. The Second Worst Thing That Can Happen To You
At one end of Alcor’s conference room is a picture window of the kind you see in police interrogation rooms. It’s typically covered with a metal screen, but Mike Perry, the company’s Patient Care Director, pushed a cartoonishly large red button and it raised to reveal the cold storage room, which if you’ve been on a brewery tour, basically looks like that. On the far wall is a row of towering silver canisters containing four patients each (claustrophobia is not a concern of the cryopreserved) — plus another eight or 10 frozen heads, which are stored in crock-pot-sized cans and stacked in the canister’s center channel. Each capsule, Perry explained, is cooled to 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit using liquid nitrogen and requires no electricity. Canisters operate on the same basic principle as a thermos bottle; they are double-walled with a vacuum-sealed space between the two walls and are known as dewars, for the concept’s Scottish inventor, James Dewar. The chamber itself is filled with liquid nitrogen and is replenished weekly from a huge storage container, though in truth, Perry noted, that’s overkill. A test canister once went eight months before all of the nitrogen finally boiled off, so there’s little reason to worry about your frozen loved ones thawing should the nightwatchman fall asleep on the job.
Cryonics as a concept has existed in science-fiction for more than a century, but it traces its real-world origins to the 1964 publication of The Prospect of Immortality. That book, written by a physics and math professor from Atlantic City named Robert Ettinger, opened with a bold proclamation: “Most of us now living have a chance for personal, physical immortality.” Ettinger went on to lay out, in a very specific and carefully constructed scientific argument, why humans should immediately begin to consider this plausible alternative. He wrote: “The fact: At very low temperatures it is possible, right now, to preserve dead people with essentially no deterioration, indefinitely.” Ettinger called this “suspended death” and the overall movement he hoped would grow up to support it “the freezer program,” an ominous phrase that didn’t stick for obvious reasons. (In a later book, he called it being “preserved indefinitely in not-very-dead condition,” which is so hilariously stiff as to sound bureaucratic.)
One of the people most excited by Ettinger’s ideas was Robert F. Nelson, an electronics repairman from California whose zeal landed him the job of the first-ever president of the Cryonics Society of California. And it was in that capacity — as the evangelizing voice of this nascent death alternative — that he received the most important phone call in the history of cryonics from a funeral home director: A psychologist named Dr. James Bedford was dying of cancer, and he’d ordered his son Norman to find a way to have him frozen.
Nelson was an immediate celebrity, and the story of Bedford’s preservation was slated for the cover of Life Magazine — until the Apollo 1 capsule caught fire on the launch pad, causing the death of three astronauts. (It appeared in a much smaller, limited run instead.) Nelson published the unabridged story himself, a year later, in a book titled We Froze the First Man, and it seemed briefly as if this was a movement that would take off. That was until Nelson attempted to preserve and store a number of additional patients (including a nine-year-old Canadian girl who’d died of cancer) over the ensuing years. He used capsules welded by a wig factory owner in Arizona, and paid for liquid nitrogen with sporadic donations, some modest bequests, and a loan co-signed by his frustrated wife, who ultimately divorced him.
Foremost among Nelson’s struggles was that the capsules kept breaking and he ran out of money to repair them. Finally, he went broke, and the bodies were left to thaw and rot in an Orange County mausoleum. This event was dubbed “the Chatsworth Incident” for the town in which it took place, and it basically destroyed any good faith the public had in cryonics, which many people considered unsettling to begin with. (Later this year, a film about Chatsworth will arrive in theaters; directed by Errol Morris and inspired by a popular This American Life segment, Freezing People Is Easy stars Paul Rudd, Kristin Wiig, Owen Wilson, and Christopher Walken, and is unlikely to improve cryonics’ long tarnished rep.)
Of all the corpses, Bedford is the only one that endured. And though his preservation was far from ideal, it was done within hours of his death, and despite a three-decade adventure that is equal parts Keystone Kops and Weekend at Bernie’s — for many years, his capsule was kept in a rented storage locker, and his son or wife would stay home for days on end waiting for intransigent, price-gouging liquid nitrogen suppliers to show up and refill the tanks — his body has remained frozen ever since.
Mike Perry was present when Alcor, which took possession of Bedford’s body in 1991, moved the first cryonaut into his current canister, and got a good look at his remains. “We thought he looked wonderful because he hasn’t decomposed,” Perry told me. “His eyes are open but the corneas are totally frosted so his eyes are pure white. You could see his teeth. He’s not smiling, and you might say he kind of looks like a fresh accident victim. ” That said, there wasn’t any way to take a closer look. Alcor’s workers put Bedford’s body into a more modern vessel and hooked up the dry ice. He’s been in the house ever since.
Perry says that he is “generally optimistic” about the prospects of reviving Bedford someday, despite the many travails of his afterlife, and the fact that he was frozen long before proper cryoprotectants were available. Even a “straight freeze,” as they call it, is “probably better than doing nothing,” he said. He likes to think of the problems that face future reanimations as being similar to those presented by archeology. Sometimes you hack away the jungle and there’s Machu Picchu, ready to re-inhabit; other times, you get only a pile of rocks and some shattered pots. “You find fragments and shards and all kinds of stuff, and over a period of time you fit every broken brick back together,” he explained. “It’s actually kind of hard to erase information.”
What Perry is talking about is beyond science-fiction at this point, of course. And this simple fact — that his employer and the few others like it are asking for a down payment on something so speculative — is really the crux of most opposition to cryonics in the scientific establishment. Certain events, such as Chatsworth Incident and a 1987 mess in which Alcor refused to hand over the frozen head of one client to a coroner, resulting in a SWAT team raid and temporary confiscation of the cryopreservation equipment, gut-punched cryonics in public.
As a result, this has mostly been prevalent in the collective consciousness as a gag: Sleeper, Futurama, Austin Powers. But the real damage has always been the cold shoulder from science, even (or especially) from the more mainstream cryobiologists, who practice the low-temperature science of living things. They worried that association with cryonics would hamper funding in more legitimate experiments, and in 1982, the Society for Cryobiology issued a statement banning from membership those “misrepresenting the science of cryobiology, including any practice or application of freezing deceased persons in anticipation of their reanimation.”
The cold, hard truth of cryonics is that only a little real progress has been made in the 50 years since Bedford was chilled with ice cubes and wrapped in a space blanket. The most important advance for the field, without question, came in the late 1990s, when the Los Angeles-based cryobiology research firm 21st Century Medicine developed a proprietary cryoprotectant that is infused through the bloodstream to replace water in a body’s cells, eliminating what was long known to be a major problem of cryonics: ice crystal formation. (Upon freezing, the water in a body’s cells expands, destroying cell walls and tissue.) This process is called vitrification because what it does, essentially, is turn tissue into glass. Cryoprotectants, however, may damage the cells in other ways, and they only work as long as the blood hasn’t clotted. If there’s been some kind of brain injury, or the blood-brain barrier has closed, it may not be impossible for technicians to infuse the entire brain. At that point, it’s fair to wonder what you’re even preserving.
This was Alcor President Max More’s concern with the patient from Las Vegas, and by the time he drove me to lunch at a nearby sandwich shop, the man had been medically deceased for 17 hours. Once the perfusion window has closed, the only thing Alcor can do is a straight freeze, which is “very undesirable,” More said, because it ensures that there will be substantial cellular damage from the ice crystals. What’s ultimately thawed will be, crudely speaking, mush.
The whole thing, I suggested, feels like a leap of faith.
“I never use the word faith because I’m a strong rationalist, but it’s based on an assumption that technology continues to advance and our current theory on death is simply wrong,” More replied. What Alcor offers, he said, “is an extension of medical technology.” Cryonicists assert that the definition of death, which seems fairly clear, actually isn’t; it has changed over time. “Fifty years ago, if you keeled over here in the restaurant and your heart stopped beating, people would have said, ‘He’s dead.’ Today, medics would start pumping away on your chest, defibrillate your heart, and you’d start up again. But you were dead by the standards of 50 years ago.”
Cryonics takes this a step farther, continuing to challenge the idea of what it means to “die.” When someone is clinically dead today, all it really means is that today’s doctors, using today’s technology, can’t do anymore for that particular person. But, More suggested, “All of your cells are basically alive. They’re just not functioning. We say that, rather than incinerate or bury you, we should stop you from getting worse. That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying to stop that decay.”
More likes to use a line that serves as both a motto and a joke for the community he leads. He knows that what he’s advocating remains unproven, and is easily dismissed. Being frozen, he says, is the second worst thing that can happen to you. But it’s certainly better than the first.
III. Back From the Dead
Max More isn’t alone. A devoted core of evangelists has continued to maintain that what Ettinger first promised wasn’t all that crazy and could — someday, given enough time and money — be possible. And over time, the taint has begun to fade, ever so slightly, as science begins to make real progress in areas that for so long seemed impossible: cloning, gene therapy, nanotechnology, regenerative medicine. As Alcor member Mark Voelker, a 56-year-old semi-retired optical scientist and engineer from Southern California, told me when I asked what gave him hope: “Stem cells are frozen with liquid nitrogen. The idea that if you freeze something it kills it, that’s not true.”
And even that tiniest blip of promise provides hope, especially to a certain kind of person — the one who can’t fathom that the fantastic ride of life has to end. “It’s an insurance policy,” American Idol and The X Factor kingpin Simon Cowell told GQ in 2011. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it does work, I’ll be happy. If it’s possible, and I think it will be, why not have a second crack? I have a feeling that if I don’t do it now,” he said of the procedure, “I could regret this in 300 years’ time.”
Larry King has muttered about the subject for years, and the imminent arrival of his ninth decade seems to have solidified his exit plan. The erstwhile talk show host, now 79, announced last year on his CNN Special, Larry King: Dinner With King, that he won’t be going gently into that good night. “I wanna be frozen, on the hope that they’ll find whatever I died of and they’ll bring me back,” he said. King later discussed the topic with Family Guy creator Seth McFarlane, who indicated that he has similar designs on immortality.
The richest vein of professed cryonicists is, not surprisingly, in the world of technology. Though most of Alcor’s members remain anonymous, its public-facing members include prolific inventor and Singularity cleric Ray Kurzweil; nanotechnology pioneer Ralph Merkle; and Marvin Minsky, co-founder of MIT’s artificial intelligence laboratory.
If ever a group is going to coalescence behind the idea of obviating death as we know it, it’s the one currently ruling Silicon Valley, which came of age at a time when it really felt like the right combination of smart people and money could solve any problem. And the most intriguing name to sniff around cryonics publicly is Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor who co-founded eBay and was the first outside investor in Facebook. Thiel, who has made no secret of his belief in experimental science, and of his interest in technologies that could suspend or eliminate aging, has a separate fund set up to invest in more outré scientific endeavors. And Breakout Labs, as it’s known, has provided seed capital to two cryonics-related start-ups founded by former Alcor employees.
Thiel (who declined an interview request) was also part of the conversation that laid the groundwork for a cryonics X-Prize that is currently in development. The prize, as constructed, would challenge applicants to freeze and then thaw a human organ so that it returns to a viable state. This would enable organ banks, potentially solving a huge global problem — the shortage of organs for transplant — and would be the first proof-of-concept that large, complex collections of tissue could be stored indefinitely at low temperatures without damage. It’s not a huge leap from there to imagine the same thing being done with a whole organism.
“We’re always looking for ideas at the bleeding edge,” says X-Prize Foundation President Eileen Bartholomew, whose big-idea-chasing boss, X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis, started the conversation with Thiel. “Especially fields where other incentives — like angel funding, venture capital, or government grants — are not available or working.” Though the project is still awaiting an official sponsor before it can launch, Bartholomew is optimistic that’ll happen. “I think it’s an amazing prize that could change the way people think about their bodies and organs and fragility. The entire industry of cryonics has suffered from fanaticism. People have overlooked the opportunity to create just-in-time access to things like organs.” And she thinks something like an X-Prize could be exactly what the field needs to rebuild some of its tattered reputation, not to mention draw a heretofore unreachable influx of money and talent. “To be able to freeze an organ and then reconstitute it — that has an element of awe that is lacking in the field.”
Bartholomew says that a more complex prize was discussed, in which participants would be asked to freeze and thaw an entire organism (specifically, a mouse, and they “lovingly” called this the “Mouse-icle” concept), but that the sweet spot for an X-Prize is to find the precise midpoint of “audacity and achievability.” Part of what the Foundation sets out to do, she explains, is to “knock over the first domino,” to overcome the forces of opposition in the marketplace, and once the proof of concept has been shown with an organ, there’s every reason to think a race to even bigger things would naturally just begin.
It’s possible, though, that the most promising future for cryonics lies in Russia, where Danila Medvedev, the founder of KrioRus, has studied the mistakes made by his Western counterparts. “We have managed a very time-consuming public relations campaign in Russia to do what American cryonicists failed to do — make cryonics respectable and an accepted part of life,” Medvedev explained, by email. “There is a lot of support for what we do and we are confident that Russia is the rising star of cryonics.”
As far back as 2005, Medvedev invited a crew from a national TV network to film a cryopreservation in St. Petersburg, and when that patient was placed in liquid nitrogen at KrioRus’ newly opened facility a year later, one of the country’s largest newspapers put the story on its front page. What’s more, he says, Russia is the only country in the world where the state television channel has a government-sponsored talk show that discusses all the different angles of life extension. “Cryonics is seen as a natural part of this technological spectrum and a continuation of the attempt to extend life.”
Medvedev asserts that there is no public opposition, and that this has a trickle-down effect on everything from seed capital to government relations. Perhaps the most substantive result of the efforts of Russia’s fledgling cryonics community is that legislation is currently in the works to separate cryonics from funeral practices, to give it its own clear legal standing. If the law is passed, Russia would become the first country to explicitly legalize cryonics. “This will make it possible to do cryonics in cooperation with the hospitals, at their premises, using their equipment and personnel,” Medvedev told me. “This will cause costs to drop and at the same time dramatically improve the quality.”
The fact that there’s any momentum, let alone some actual research activity, has many current Alcor members more excited than they’ve been in a long time. Mark Voelker, who’s been signed up with Alcor for 25 years, thinks that a boom in areas like lab-grown organs should allow future humans to receive a la carte organs and tissues “and eventually whole new bodies” for those who choose to put themselves in the deep freeze. All of that work, he said, is being done already for reasons that have nothing to do with cryonics. And that work will continue and progress. “I see no reason why it won’t reach its ultimate destination of being able to create new young healthy bodies for anyone who needs it.” Isn’t that a radical idea to even consider? “It’s as radical as the idea of heart transplants were back in the ’60s, but that kind of stuff becomes routine after a few decades. So I’m just trying to think ahead.”
IV. If We Can Grow a Bladder, Why Can’t We Grow a Body?
Aubrey de Grey is one of the world’s loudest advocates for “defeating aging,” as he likes to call it. A 50-year-old Brit whose appearance is positively Methuselan — he has a horse’s tail of graying hair and a matching beard that he could easily tuck into his pants — de Grey likes to say that the world is in a “pro-aging” trance and that, once science finally wakes up to the reality that aging can be thought of as a curable disease, we can focus some of our global brainpower into creating life-spans that run for hundreds if not thousands of years. “Why cure aging?” he asked, at the beginning of a TED talk. “Because it kills people!”
De Grey, who has an appointment at Oxford, spends much of his time at the California headquarters of his SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), Foundation, which he created to be a home for research into radical life-extension science. He is optimistic that we’ll make enough aging breakthroughs in his lifetime — in fact, he thinks the first 1,000-year-old has probably already been born — but as a hedge for his own mortality, he joined Alcor, and serves on the company’s scientific advisory board.
De Grey has been a member for about 10 years, since Alcor invited him to speak at a cryonics conference. “I was immediately persuaded that the idea [of cryonics] had advanced far enough — that it was a viable proposition,” he told me. “People had a respectable chance of being revivable in the future with medicine that was a natural extension of what I was working on.” He views cryonics as an insurance policy, in case a cure for aging takes longer than he anticipates it should.
The good news about cryonics, he says, is that the first major breakthrough has already occurred. Vitrification, unfortunately, has its own flaw — during rapid cooling, tiny cracks form in the glass, and these cracks are also destroying tissue — but de Grey sees this as “a much lesser problem.”
In fact, he thinks that the Chief Operating Officer of SENS is very close to solving it. Tanya Jones has worked on and off in cryonics for 22 years, including several stints at Alcor, mostly recently as president. Today, from a Bay Area laboratory, she works on anti-aging projects with SENS, and increasingly with Arigos Biomedical, a company she started with the goal of refining vitrification. This will obviously benefit anyone who chooses to be frozen, but the more immediate and important result is it that it could allow for something far less weird-seeming than freezing entire human bodies: reversible long-term storage of organs for transplants, exactly the challenge X-Prize hopes to put forth.
What got Jones moving in the right direction was the fact that small organisms, such as embryos and stem cells — anything smaller than three cubic centimeters, basically — can be frozen in liquid nitrogen and thawed with no damage. But anything bigger gets fractures. No one is sure why this is.
Jones thinks she’s found a way around the problem of vitrification, and if the solution she’s currently at work on is successful, it’s not just important for cryonics; it’s important for the larger field of cryobiology, because if larger, more complex bundles of cells can be frozen, it would enable organ banking. Taking this a step further, Jones cites the emerging field of tissue engineering, in particular the lab-grown organ project ongoing at Wake Forest’s Institute for Regenerative Medicine — where a team led by Anthony Atala has grown, from human cells, bladders viable enough to implant in ailing children. The combined forces of lab-grown organs, and a stable, long-term storage solution would completely revolutionize medicine. Instead of the agonizing deaths of patients waiting for donor organs, we’d have organs on demand, in frozen banks, as accessible as stents or pills.
Arigos is one of the projects backed by Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs, and Jones is thankful that at least one investor is willing to take risks on science that she sees as unduly marginalized. “Cryonics research has lagged,” she says. “It’s kind of sad how little effort has been going into it in recent years.” Jones attributes some of that to the stigma, but it’s also due to a lack of technological progress, which of course is a cryonics Catch-22. “Procedures haven’t improved dramatically enough to inspire people to sign up.”
Though Jones is an Alcor member, and will someday be frozen, she sees whole body preservation having a far more immediate and useful purpose: short-term clinical freezing. “In an ideal world, this will be common medical practice — for any illness that cannot be immediately treated to restore people to full health.” Using cryonics, doctors could put sick patients into a “sort of a medically induced ultra-cold coma” that could last only a few weeks, or several months, or even years — however long it takes to find a cure. (Ettinger envisioned this short-time cryo state as well, albeit in a slightly more comical iteration: “Some of us might feel a little queasy at the notion, so to speak, of a zombie climbing the cellar steps every few years, with the frost in his beard, to cast a fish eye on the family and perhaps vote his shares at the election of directors of an important corporation. But one grows accustomed to everything.”)
Which isn’t to say that Jones is unconcerned with the other benefits cryonics could bring. “I’m passionate about surviving this whole death incident.”
V. The Body Doesn’t Matter
I don’t think it’s overly reductive to state that there are three possible outcomes for those who choose the freezer over a coffin:
One, science never overcomes the obstacles that stand in the way of bringing patients back and they are either thawed and disposed of the way they would have been disposed of originally. This is not a terrible outcome. They’ll have no idea it even happened.
Two, the patients are thawed in whatever state they may be (fully preserved, kind of preserved, badly preserved) and fatal issues are cured using newfound treatments, while nanotechnology repairs all the cellular damage, catastrophic and otherwise. If the body is old and decrepit, they’ll get a new one, composed of parts grown in a lab, or maybe just synthetic. This is Avatar.
Three, the body doesn’t matter. All that does is the brain, and some sort of heretofore unimagined technology will allow future humans to thaw and then access the data inside the brain and upload that data directly into a machine, or the machine, or whatever.
That particular outcome — the idea that one day, near or far (but probably far), we’ll be able to upload ourselves, or at least transfer our mental data, the stuff that makes us us, out of our sick, tired, dying bodies and into, well, something else — has a certain, admittedly tiny, segment of the neuroscience community very excited.
Neuroscientist Ken Hayworth is a specialist in the emerging field of connectomics, esteemed for his work in extremely high-resolution microscopy of the human brain. Work that could, one day, provide the first-ever map of the brain at the neuron level — a map that many cryonicists think is the critical link in being able to “see” our personality, to locate the software and access it, to maybe, possibly, one-day upload our consciousness and truly live forever.
“I look at this from a practical point of view, if I can interject that word into a conversation like this,” he told me by phone from his home in Virginia, where he serves as a senior scientist for the Janelia Farm Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “In my opinion, we’re not going get to a cure to aging within my lifetime, possibly within my kids’ lifetimes. The thing that has always seemed to me low-hanging fruit is preservation. It is fundamentally easier to stop something from decaying by putting it in stasis than waiting until you figure out how to fix it.”
And yet, he is as skeptical as anyone about whether what Alcor is doing will actually work. “I go back and forth about whether to drop my membership,” says Hayworth. Rather than just hope cryonics will do what it promises, he decided to act as a sort of guerilla X-Prize director by announcing what he called the Brain Preservation Prize. It offers $100,000, and the attendant publicity, for the first persons to show proof of a perfectly preserved brain, with absolutely no damage, and so far only two groups have entered. One is a group of Germans at the Max Planck Institute. They’re pursuing chemical preservation and are doing quite well. The downside to their approach is that once preservation has begun the tissue is cooked; there’s no hope of reinvigorating a chemically preserved brain as a living thing. The other entry is from 21st Century Medicine, led by Dr. Greg Fahy, inventor of Alcor’s cryoprotectant. (And if you want an example of just how touchy the subject of cryonics is in the world of science, Fahy provides an excellent example. Despite being the guy who invented the cryoprotectant widely credited with improving Alcor’s work, and being on Alcor’s board, Fahy won’t give interviews on the topic. The reason: 21st Century doesn’t want this one polarizing subject to tar its broader work in the field of cryobiology.)
For all of his doubts about cryonics’ ability to preserve a brain, Hayworth notes that “there are a couple of extremely relevant pieces of work that have come out of Fahy’s lab that basically say cryonics cannot be dismissed.” In 2005, Fahy successfully froze a rabbit kidney at liquid nitrogen temperatures (to -130 Celsius), stored it for a week, then thawed and re-implanted it in a living rabbit. If there’s a single recent experiment that enlivens cryonicists, it’s this one. The other, newer and lesser known — but just as exciting to Hayworth — is an experiment in which Fahy took a one-half millimeter slice of brain tissue from the hippocampus of a rat, vitrified and froze it, then re-warmed it and showed that the cells were still intact. Better yet, Fahy was able to use electrical stimulation to show that the electrons were still spiking. “That showed that it still has enough connectivity to activate other parts of the slice,” which would indicate that, as part of a whole, it would still work.
One thing that kept tripping me up about the feasibility of cryonics is that it hinges on the notion that we can just put the brain to sleep, like a laptop, then turn it back on and have the screen appear exactly the way we left it. I can get behind the idea that we could freeze a collection of tissue and organs, and bring them back someday (it’s possible on small organisms already), but the idea that Josh Dean, guy who detests beets and goes irrationally bananas about sporting events, would just magically still be there — after however many years — seemed impossible. Where would that person (or soul or collection of electrons or whatever) go in the intervening years/decades?
This scenario — of the brain turning back on once a person warms up — happens all the time, Aubrey de Grey told me. “That’s exactly what occurs when someone falls through ice in a frozen lake and is unconscious for a half-hour.” When the body temperature drops below 18 degrees Celsius, he said, electrical activity stops completely. There are many cases of people falling into frigid water, lapsing into unconsciousness, and being reawakened when warmed up. And if that’s true for two hours, it should in theory also be true for two years (or 200) — if we can just find a way to reach the temperatures needed to forestall decay, without causing damage. The crux, de Grey said, is determining whether or not cryonics preserves the molecular structure of the brain without inflicting irreparable damage to the data that makes us who we are.
Count Huffman among those convinced that the information in our brains can be preserved, and thus, in theory, later recovered. But only if we’re doing things in a manner that ensures that all of the brain tissue is actually being saved. And right now, he’s far from certain. “Fortunately, we don’t have to solve the whole problem — only how to do the best storage possible,” he said. “Once a person is at liquid nitrogen temperatures, time is no longer a factor.”
Huffman has a very peculiar and, I think, reasonable endgame in mind for himself. “The difference between the civilization that revives us will be as different as today versus 400 years ago. I don’t really expect to be revived and given an apartment and job and sent into the world,” he said. “I think the purpose of reviving a person is about having a better understanding of human history and the human condition.” He likens it to studying mummies or discarded artifacts and thinks that this will be the motivation of future generations to revive the residents of Alcor’s freezers, even though doing so might well come at great cost. (A factor that many cryonicists choose to ignore, or attempt to explain away using an argument of moral responsibility.) “I think they can reverse engineer neural circuitry, extract out identity, memories, ideas, and study those — to learn what it was like to be human in 1980 through whenever I die.”
This isn’t quite the romantic vision held by many other cryonicists, who tend to want to wake up and be the people they were, in whatever exciting new world they inhabit, but it at least addressed another question that was bugging me. What is going to make future generations want to spend the money, and take the time, to revive freezers full of people from the past who could then become rivals for their resources?
Huffman is working on very crude brain mapping as a kind of baby step toward the gigantically huge challenge of unlocking the secrets of our brain — of being able to identify and map every single neural connection. I asked him how close we were to doing that.
“What you described is probably one of the hardest problems humanity will ever solve, if we solve it,” he answered, as chipper and un-exasperated as if I’d asked him to describe his lunch. “Brain complexity rivals the ecosystem of the entire earth.” Huffman believes we will get there — at least 50 and “probably more like 100 years” from now — and that a properly preserved human brain will hold our personality and memories in storage for as long as it takes. “I think that neural information and coding is robust enough to survive conventional dying and cryopreservation,” he said. “I don’t believe there is anything supernatural or fundamentally intractable about the way that minds work. If you understand that completely, and assuming no spiritual components or supernatural component, you should be able to emulate in another substrate how those neurons compute. That’s the 100-year goal I’m working towards.”
Both Hayworth and Huffman dismiss the notion that the personality is something other than data that should be accessible. To argue otherwise, Huffman says, is to mix the supernatural with science. “I think to make a statement that thought occurs in a place that fundamentally we can’t access and will never be able to access —I frankly think it’s stupid and intellectually lazy.”
Ken Hayworth, who has worked at both Harvard and at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has no doubt that the human personality can survive a prolonged stasis. That’s why he’s so bullish about the Brain Preservation Prize, because he knows that unlocking the connectome is going to take a very long time and the only way to nullify time as a factor is to find a way to safely store away brains in the meantime.
He is less abstruse about his motives for being preserved. “I very much want to see the future. I think of what Chris Hitchens said about dying — what’s bad about it is the party goes on without you. The thing that gets me more involved in this is not a personal issue. Humanity doesn’t deserve to be suffering and dying in hospitals just because they’re 70 or 80. Our best and brightest minds like Einstein are just ripped away from us. Humanity deserves better than that.”
Hayworth sees the connectomics research being done today by people like himself, and Huffman, and MIT’s Sebastian Seung (a computational neuroscientist and author of last year’s Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are) as the first step toward uploading. “I embrace the idea that human mind is a machine and our mind is the software.”
I asked if there was a counter argument that he would accept as plausible. “I don’t accept anything as a reasonable objection,” he replied. “I think if you had a structural image of all the connections, the neurons, I think that would be sufficient to get memories and behaviors.”
The issue is getting there. It’s going to take, he said, “at least hundreds of billions of dollars to do this for one human brain and several decades.” On the one hand, we have the tools, in particular the incredibly high-resolution microscopy he himself invented. On the other hand, it’s far harder problem than the genome ever was, and there isn’t a concerted effort to solve it. “It’s obviously technologically possible that we could have a colony on Mars within my lifetime,” he replied. “We’re not going to have a colony on Mars in my lifetime.”
VI. And Finally, a Short, Strange Trip Into the Desert In Search of the Truth
On my final day in Phoenix, Max More and the Alcor team were occupied with the matters of the urgent and unexpected cryopreservation, but there was still one person in Arizona I wanted to meet. So, I took a drive out to the desert to visit Dave Pizer, an entrepreneur and an original. In many ways the whole of the cryonics story is wrapped up in this one bear-shouldered man with the kempt hair and thick beard of a Civil War general. Once a breeder of rare Friesian horses, not to mention a world-class tournament poker player, these days he presides over a musty resort of cabins with heart-shaped hot tubs in the remote high desert town of Mayer and, upon finally grasping that my name was Josh and not Chuck or George, said, “That’s kind of a juvenile name for a mature guy like you” (then asked what it was short for).
“One day I decided I didn’t want to die,” Pizer began, once he’d adjusted his hearing aid and settled into a folding chair in a cluttered room upstairs from his resort’s lobby that he plans to turn into the world’s first-ever cryonics museum. “I was 11 or 12 and it struck me profoundly that I was going to die someday and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.” Cut to 1971, when Pizer, who had gotten his bachelor’s degree in philosophy while also running a thriving automobile upholstery business he took over from his father, made a sales call at a big Phoenix car dealership. There, one of the shop guys was making fun of a story he’d just read in the paper. It was about a company in California that froze people when they died so that they could be stored away until technology came along to revive, cure them, and offer eternal life. In the eyes of the mechanic, the story was ridiculous. But to Pizer, it was a revelation.
“The idea just instantly made sense,” he said. “It was probably the most important thing a human could do at the time to have a chance to avoid being dead forever. That’s a long time.”
When his insurance guy refused to write a policy to pay for the membership, Pizer threatened to take away his company’s business and the agent found a way to work around his misgivings. Even in the days before Fedex, Pizer managed to get his forms signed and in the hands of Alcor in a matter of days. “I was the fastest signup in the history of cryonics,” Pizer said, proudly. “I probably still hold that record.”
Pizer eventually became Alcor’s Vice President, and served in that capacity for 11 years, during which time he was instrumental in moving the operation to Phoenix from Southern California. It got the company out of earthquake danger, and also a tenuous political environment, where the Riverside County coroner was a persistent threat. Being around Los Angeles, Pizer said, “was a very dangerous place to be, with earthquakes, civil unrest and terrorist attacks. You don’t think of [the risk of a catastrophic event] in a normal lifespan, but if you have to be in a frozen state for three or four hundred years, the odds go up.”
Pizer has done as much thinking about cryonics as anyone on Earth. Back in 2006, he made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, above the fold and illustrated with one of those little cross-hatch drawings of his amply bearded head, for his efforts to create a “personal revival trust” that would protect his estate and set a legal precedent for other wealthy cryonics patients, to ensure they wake up to a flush bank account that had been shielded from descendents and governments. Pizer told that Journal that, with the compounding interest on the $10 million in assets he planned to fritter away, he could wake up after a century as “the richest man in the world.”
As a student of philosophy, Pizer is reflexively cynical. He asked if I was familiar with Pascal’s Wager, a line of reasoning concocted by the Christian philosopher Blaise Pascal that was used to push skeptical converts off the fence and onto Team Jesus. The basic idea was to say that, Hey, here’s what we believe: If you’re a good person, and you die, you go to Heaven, an awesome, beatific place where you live forever in bliss. Even if you suspect Pascal is full of shit, there’s little downside. “If you accept Christianity and it’s all just a story, you’re dead anyhow,” Pizer said. “You have nothing to lose.” To Pizer, the question shouldn’t be, Why take cryonics seriously? It’s: Why not take a flyer on it? “It just costs a little bit, especially for young people — your dues and life insurance are probably less than a smoking habit — and if it ends up working, you can come back and live forever.”
As a man in his early seventies, Pizer has far fewer days ahead of him than behind, and I wondered if he was disappointed that the movement he’d supported for most of his adult life hadn’t yet caught the public’s imagination. “I’m disappointed, but on the other hand, there’s no objective way to assume it’s going slow,” he answered. “Objectively it may be going faster than a speeding bullet when you compare what we had to start with and how complex the problem is.”
He could be right. Maybe it’s only progressing slowly in current human lifespan context. Maybe one day they’ll thaw people as simply as pot roasts and everyone will think, “I can’t believe how quickly we accomplished that!”
“I wish that they could improve the speed of aging reversal so I didn’t have to spend a few hundred years in a can,” Pizer said. “I’m not looking forward to that.”
I asked him the question I’d asked Max More, Aubrey De Grey, Todd Huffman, and pretty much everyone else I’d interviewed. What is the tipping point for cryonics? When do we start to see it as a legitimate alternative to death, with large numbers of people, and not just a few crackpots — pardon me, mavericks — signing up?
He didn’t hesitate. “When they bring the first guy back.” The problem, as we just established, is that if this can actually be done, it might be hundreds of years in the future. Which means anyone who decides to take the leap of the faith in the meantime is left with what I’ll call Pizer’s Wager. He thinks you’re nuts not to take it. “We knew before we went to the moon that it could be done. It wasn’t against the laws of physics. Can you reverse aging so people can live forever, virtually, as long as they have a place to live in? Sure, why not? What is aging? It’s just an engineering problem.”
Pizer is sensitive to the notion that some people view cryonics as a cult, and that Alcor is only interested in exploiting a fear of mortality for financial gain. He made a point to say that is no longer associated with Alcor in any official capacity. “I’m just a rank and file member. But for a guy that’s been around for 40 years or so, studying and reading and going to college and working in the field, “I feel certain that cryonics can work. I didn’t say it would work because there are other outside factors.” Humans could destroy the planet. The government could ban cryonics. Or a group of religious zealots, fearing the growing influence of a competing movement, could do something rash.
Back in Phoenix, the body of the delinquent nightclub owner was just settling into its new stainless steel capsule. After many hours of fingernail-gnawing at Alcor, the corpse was retrieved in the field, flown to Phoenix, and successfully cryopreserved, at least as far as anyone could tell. The mortuary in Las Vegas had helped matters by injecting heparin, and getting the body on ice, quickly. More than 24 hours passed, but Max More and his team had done the best they could under the circumstances, and so this nonagenarian from Nevada, a full body cryo, became the 112th person to take up residence in the stainless steel canisters at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. Henceforth, he will be known as patient number A-2628. And considering that fewer than 250 people (including the idea’s godfather, Robert Ettinger, who became the 106th person frozen at the Cryonics Institute in 2011, when he died at the age of 92, as well as his mother and two former wives) have chosen this path in the whole of human history, it seems fair still to call them cryonauts — they are the extremely few intrepid souls who have taken a path that might be slightly less final than death.
Someday in the not-too-distant future Dave Pizer will join them, and in his final breaths, after taking in the world he hopes to one day see again, he might well say a little prayer. Near the end of our conversation, Pizer admitted that he’s hedging the bet he already hedged, because, hey, we’re talking about death here. “I’m not anti-religious,” he said. In the occasion that he’s read things completely wrong, Pizer has left room in his mind for more than one wager. “I hope there’s a God,” he said. “And that he’s a nice guy, and very forgiving.”