~ March 15, 2002
On my right wrist is a new addition: a small metal tag,
wide as a finger and a shade narrower than a human wrist,
held on by a light but tough metal chain. Etched deeply
on the tag are terse instructions, alert procedures,
and the symbol of a caduceus: in an emergency a paramedic
might mistake it for a medical alert bracelet.
The resemblance is intentional, but this
bracelet does not alert paramedics to an emergency
treatment designed to save my life. Instead it
describes a biostatis protocol designed to
preserve my corpse for cryotransport - or, more
If I drop dead, freeze my head and ship me to Arizona.
I am a candidate for cryonic suspension: the
freezing of grieviously ill patients in the hope of
reviving them later when more advanced technology can
cure their ills. The idea is familiar from popular
culture - you can't swing a dead cat in LA without
hitting an actor that's been frozen, suspended,
downloaded into a computer - but few realize that
people have been cryonically suspended in reality
for over thirty years.
A number of questions leap to mind. Are you serious?
How on Earth did people come up with this idea? As we learn more about life and how it works, our idea of
death has slowly marched back. Once we believed life required
breathing; then we learned to restart breathing and life merely
required a beating heart; then we learned to restart hearts and life
merely required a functioning brain. Now, we know that death is simply a natural
process: when cells are no longer supplied with
a source of energy, they stop maintaining their
structure in the face of entropy and slowly
begin to disintegrate in varied and complex ways.
But the march of entropy is slowed by cold.
When a body is frozen, that disintegration stops
almost completely, and most of its structure
- most of its important structure, despite the damage
done by freezing - is preserved. But while a body is frozen in timeless slumber,
the march of science is not. As the boundary of
life and death continues to be pushed back,
the body remains in its frozen state. A cryonicist
is simply making a bet: given time - given enough
time - the ability of medicine to repair damage
to a body will exceed the damage that disease and
cold have done to it, and what appeared to be
a dead and frozen corpse will once again become alive.
It's a familiar concept - in fiction. Recent
popular movies like Artificial Intelligence
and Vanilla Sky feature the concept of freezing
or chilling someone to preserve their life. Earlier,
spacecraft in genre movies like Alien and
2001 routinely put their crews
in frozen "hibernation" to reduce the cost of long
journeys, and before that, science fiction authors
like Larry Niven built large chunks of their
careers around words like "corpsicle".
One could argue that this merely dresses up an
older fantasy idea with a little scientific
gobbledygook to make it sound possible: after all,
Rip van Winkle did not need to be frozen to see
future wonders. But the idea of preserving and
reanimating the dead existed in science before
science fiction existed: Benjamin Franklin's
speculations on the topic are the most famous
example, though Marcus Aurelius' musings about
the dissolution of the patterns that made up
his body make me suspect that ever since
Democritus put forth his atomic hypothesis,
philosophers have been wondering whether
Humpty Dumpty could be put back together again.
But no matter how far back the history of
informed speculation has been, I precisely
do want to argue that preservation and
reanimation is simply a dressing up of an
older fantasy idea: that of the afterlife.
Are the elaborate preparations a
body undergoes prior to cryonic suspension
really so different from the elaborate
mummification procedures Egyptian nobility
went through prior to being interred in their
pyramids? After all, both were and are carried
out at great expense by dedicated people who
believe seriously that the complex rituals
they perform will give their patients a shot
at a second life they have never seen. Are
these rituals any different to the burial
rituals performed by cavemen twenty
thousand years earlier?
Really, how is belief in cryonics any
different from belief in a religious afterlife?
Speaking as someone who passionately believes
in both, I can see a few distinctions.
Religion and science are very different beasts.
Religion, like the "philosophies" of the ancient
Greeks, identifies and preserves deep truths
that believers use to structure their pictures
of the world and to choose the values that
shape their lives. Science, in contrast,
collects new knowledge relentlessly and winnows
it mercilessly, fine tuning the abilities of
its practitioners to explain their world
and to technically manipulate it.
In this view, religion is the keeper of
very robust knowledge that rarely changes -
murder is still wrong, millenia after Moses
came down from the mount - but these truths
must be accepted on faith because they are
not useful for prediction. Science, in
contrast, is the keeper of validated knowledge:
knowledge backed by argument and evidence and
which can be used to predict and act - yet
paradoxically, this validated knowledge is
subject to change each week as new evidence
arrives. Because of these differences,
there is a fundamental asymmetry between
the two kinds of afterlife.
A religious afterlife is a given. It is not
a mere possiblity, but an actuality: a fixture of a believer's
universe without which the universe would be meaningless - if not
inconceivable. With respect to the elegant arguments of Christian
apologists like C.S. Lewis, the afterlife needs no justification:
only faith. A scientific afterlife does not have
such ontological luxuries. First, it is
not an afterlife at all, but
an extension of this life beyond
its typical end. Second, a scientific
afterlife isn't really scientific,
either; it is engineering, a proposal marrying current
scientific models with projected technical capabilities. The
scientific afterlife offers no guarantees, only possibilities based
on knowledge that might be invalid.
And those possibilities are tentative: engineering makes no
guarantees. No matter how carefully a system is prepared, there is
always some chance, some tiny epsilon, of failure. And even if a cryonic system could
be guaranteed to function
correctly every time, there is no guarantee
that circumstances would enable the technique
to be applied to any given person. With
all the things that can go wrong
at the end of someone's life, what
chance does anyone have of
cryonic survival even if the machines could work
I have argued that cryonics is engineering,
and engineers are taught to begin with rule-of-thumb estimation,
ballparking the range of reasonable answers before detailed
calculation begins. The technique is so valuable everyone can learn
to do it - pick a rough model of the phenomenon, find reasonable
estimates of each value, and run the numbers. It may be wrong, but
it is a start that is more valuable than pure intuition because it
helps improve your understanding of the problem. As a start, you can
do this yourself to estimate the success rate of cryonics.
Choose a simple assumption
- for example, you might argue that
you need to have a whole brain in
order to have a reasonable shot of
being reanimated as the same person.
With that assumption, now ballpark
the number of people who die each
year, and the number of people who
die in ways unsuited for even the best
cryonic suspension - murder victims who
are autopsied, traffic victims who are
burned, Alzheimer's victims who "die"
before they die - and you may find
the result to be sobering.
But engineers - whether they are
civil engineers accounting for wind shear
on a bridge or software engineers modeling
the cost of manipulating a priority queue
- are taught to go beyond the back of the
envelope and to methodically identify the
factors relevant to the problem based on
known models of the phenomena and to
then analyze how those factors impact the
solution. And based on the models at hand, an
engineering analysis supports the idea that
reanimation of a cryonically suspended
corpse is possible - while achieving
it will require the development of novel
technologies, it violates no known fundamental
limits of physical law.
However, applying the same kind of
mental discipline reveals that while
that cryonic suspension is possible it
will be extremely difficult to achieve
technically. Moreover, cryonics requires
so many factors to work in concert that
it appears extraordinarily unlikely to
succeed in any given instance - the
epsilon of error in the equation
grows to dominate the other factors.
Nerve cells begin to degrade rapidly
after blood flow stops. Freezing destroys
the very structure it is designed to preserve,
turning tissue into an frozen mulch of ice
crystals. And the mathematics of reconstructing
those trillions of cells is daunting,
to say the least.
How could this ever work?
But the beauty of engineering is that
once a technical challenge has been identified,
it can be addressed. Procedures that ensure
cryosuspension begins as soon as possible
can minimize nerve damage. Cooling the
body slowly can "vitrify" the tissue,
preventing ice crystals from
forming by turning cells into perfectly
preserved glass. And to rebuild those
cells, science is actively
pursuing nanotechnology to manipulate
matter on an atomic scale. Which brings us back
to the cryonicist's bet
- that technology will improve to the point that
even an imperfectly preserved corpse can be
animated by a sufficiently advanced technology.
This bet is not "magical", but is grounded
in the nature of science as a self-improving
enterprise. While scientific knowledge is volatile,
it is not ephemeral. Scientific knowledge is
ruthlessly revised every day, and the result of
centuries of this effort is that over time the
bulk of scientific knowledge gets
more and more accurate. Similarly, the capabilities
of engineers building on that science grow more
and more powerful.
As a consequence,
many seemingly implausible dreams put
forth by informed scientists have a way of
becoming true. Davinci's dreams of flight have
long since been achieved and surpassed.
Kepler's fantasies of space travel
were longer in coming, but they too have been
realized. Archimedes spoke of moving worlds,
and scientists now seriously debate how to
move asteriods from their orbits to preserve
life against a catastrophe like that which
killed the dinosaurs. And preserving life
brings us back to the dreams of Ben Franklin.
Religious faith in the afterlife is, in a
sense, easy: I do wait in joyful hope for the
coming of the Kingdom, and that hope is a
sustaining one. Scientific faith in cryonic
suspension and nanotechnological reanimation is
challenging: for it to be meaningful you must
accept that you will to die. Opting for
cryonic suspension is a pragmatic choice, based
on the scientific evidence, that gives you a
razor-thin chance to prolong your life by an
unknown amount --- but you will still die,
even if you are revived; just later, rather
The same laws that make cryonic suspension even
remotely feasible mean that even if you are
reanimated you will still die. Your odds will
be better, but modern science predicts that
all life must inevitably come to an end.
Even if you choose not to buy our current
cosmological theories, which predict that all
matter in the universe will ultimately fly
apart into cold, isolated particles, utterly
alone, you must face statistics. You are a
system. There is a nonzero probability that
any system can break down. Given a long enough
time any system that can break down inevitably
will break down. Logically...
This means you.
By hook or by crook, you will still die, one day,
when your heart stops ... or the stars grow cold.
But to see the stars grow cold! Even a long shot
at such an incredible adventure seems worth it for
most who sign up. To paraphrase Tyler
Durden from Fight Club: You have to realize that
one day you will die. Until you know that, you are
useless. When you know that, you can do anything.
If you can't face that, don't put on the tag.
See you in 15 ... or perhaps 15,000,000?