“Most of us now living have a chance for personal, physical immortality.” This is the sentence French biologist and philosopher Jean Rostand (son of the writer Edmond de Rostand) used to begin the preface of a book on cryonics, The Prospect of Immortality, by the physics professor and science fiction writer Robert C. W. Ettinger.
Peter Toma was born in a village in Hungary in 1924. After emigrating to Bavaria and then to Switzerland at the age of 20, he settled in the United States in 1952. Passionate about computers and speaking several languages, he would develop one of the best known automatic translation software products, called Systran. More than eight decades later, he was admitted to a German hospital due to back pain. While there, he fell and broke his femur, which required further surgery. The operation was successful, but the patient developed atypical postoperative dementia.
He never recovered, and, after returning to the United States, his health continued to deteriorate. On June 24, 2010, at 4:14 p.m., Peter passed away. A minute passed without any breathing and no pulse. He was immediately given five different drugs, and a complicated series of medical interventions began. However, the goal was not to resuscitate the patient, but to prepare him for a possible resuscitation in the future. Peter Toma, like his mother, is part of a small number of people who chose, instead of an ordinary grave, an unusual one, in an ice cemetery.
Robert C. W. Ettinger, the seeker of scientific immortality
Robert C. W. Ettinger’s book, The Prospect of Immortality, published in 1962, marked the beginning of a period when the idea of cryonics was being spread and commercialized. Now available to anyone for free, in electronic format, the book argues for Ettinger’s belief that the realm of cryonics offers the modern human a chance at immortality. However, Ettinger was realistic enough to end his book by saying that there would be no financial interest in this bold idea, and he prophesied that the application of the concept would require brave people to take matters into their own hands. The first to take matters into his own hands would be Robert Ettinger himself.
In 1972, the writer published a second book: Man Into Superman, in which he continued to speculate on the possibility of putting cryonics and its practical implications, including moral ones, into practice.
After retiring in 1976, Ettinger set up the Cryonics Institute in a large warehouse in an industrial park just north of Detroit. Ettinger seems to have derived the term “cryonics” from “cryogenics” a branch of physics that studies the behaviour of materials at very low temperatures. The first “patient” of the institute was the mother of the physicist, who died at the age of 78.
The first and then the second wife of the founder would later be preserved there as well. In August 2011, when, at the age of 92, he lost his own bet with life, Ettinger became the institute’s 106th “patient”. According to his son, Robert Ettinger at one point expressed his desire to ski when he “returns” because, with one leg shorter than the other, he was not able to ski in this life.
“The life of the whole world is a dream of eternal death.”
Legend has it that Buddha, whose royal name was Siddhārtha, was raised by his wealthy parents under a bell jar: a command had been given to the guards to keep any dead, old, or sick person away from the palace and the eyes of the child. When the prince went somewhere, the royal guards would first scout the area to clear the way of anything that would remind the boy of human suffering.
One day, however, the inevitable happened: Prince Siddhārtha saw an old man, a sick man, and a dead man being carried, motionless, by four other living people. It was a shock that made him become Buddha, the Enlightened One, or the One Who Awoke. Of course, this is just a legend that flourished and was embellished over time, but it illustrates the inevitability of death. Not even the willpower of the most powerful kings can stop man from meeting his gloomy destiny.
A resurrection market‒suppliers and customers
To date, more than 459 people have signed cryonic body preservation contracts after death with the Cryonics Institute, a non-profit organization founded by Robert Ettinger, for the price of $28,000 per person. However, the Cryonics Institute (which now has 112 “patients”, the rest of the signatories still being alive) is not the only provider of such services. In the United States, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation is also preserving 113 human bodies in cryostasis. Here, beneficiaries pay through their life insurance. An insurance fee of at least $200,000 is required to preserve the entire body.
Unlike the Cryonics Institute, which exclusively preserves “the whole body”, Alcor offers members the choice of preserving either the entire corpse for $120,000, or just the head detached from the body—presumably all the information needed for future science, including memory, is stored in the brain, so this may be enough to return to life. One can choose the “neuro only” preservation for the low, low price of $50,000.
Detachment of the head for cryopreservation sounds sinister, but of the 113 “patients” preserved at Alcor, only 39 have preserved their entire body. 74 are “neuro”, i.e. only their heads are preserved.
The American Cryonics Society is the third non-profit organization that does not have its own space and equipment, but subcontracts them (for example, the bodies are stored at the Cryonics Institute). Across the ocean, in Mother Russia, near Moscow, KrioRus has been providing similar services to magnates interested in immortality since 2003. The cost amounted to 49,000 euro per “patient” in 2013.
There is currently only one company in the European Union that is active in this field, EUCRIO, located in Lisbon. However, it does not offer corpse storage services, but only standby, stabilization, and transport services. Standby services refer to the presence of a specially qualified team waiting by the patient’s side to take action as soon as the death is legally pronounced, so as to minimize potential alterations of the corpse (on average, the waiting period, or standby, is estimated by the company at about 10 days).
Basically, during the waiting period, nothing is done to the patient. The qualified team stays right by their side to intervene immediately upon death. Stabilization refers to the initial processing of the corpse: cooling, continued cardiac support, administration of the necessary drugs for cryopreservation and replacement of the patient’s blood with a medical cryoprotectant (until now, glycerin has been used), to reduce the negative effects induced by the cooling process.
How high are the chances that the dead people in these ice cemeteries, euphemistically called “patients”, can be resurrected? Most researchers consider them minimal. Some of them do not hesitate to describe all these steps as a simple sham, and the price paid as wasted money. However, “I’d say you could find one scientist out of a thousand who disagree [with this consensus]” said Leonard Hayflick, an anatomy professor at the University of California, ten years ago.
Nothing but mere eccentrics?
British journalist Murray Ballard interviewed some of the potential beneficiaries of these cryonics organizations and says that most of those he met are aware that, for the most part, it is a science at a very experimental stage, for which there is no proof yet that it works. “In the main, they’re actually very well informed about the medical research. A lot of them are skeptical themselves, and nobody can guarantee it will work. But some are a lot more positive about the prospect, and others have signed up because they’re just petrified of dying. If your dream is to become immortal, this is the only option there is.”
Proponents of the concept argue that there are scientific arguments in favour of the preservation of bodies by freezing in the hope of a resurrection when the science of the future becomes mature enough to allow this. In a scientific paper published in 2008, Benjamin P. Best of the Cryonics Institute briefly presented scientific data in favour of current cryonics practices. Between 2004-2005, 61 scientists signed a short open letter addressed to any interested person, which included the following words:
“Cryonics is a legitimate scientific endeavour that seeks to preserve human beings, or their central nervous system, by the best technology available.
Future technologies for resuscitation can be envisioned that involve detailed control of cell growth, molecular repair by nanomedicine, and highly advanced computation. With a view toward these developments, there is a credible possibility that cryonics performed under the best conditions achievable today can preserve sufficient neurological information to permit eventual restoration of a person to full health.
The rights of people who choose cryonics are important, and should be respected.”
The text is accompanied by a note written in small print, drawing attention to the fact that “the signing of this letter does not imply the approval of any specific organization regarding cryonics or its practices. Opinions on how much ischemic brain injury (delay after clinical death) and preservation-related injuries may be reversible in the future vary widely between signatories”.
It is known that of all the organs of the body, the brain is very sensitive to a lack of oxygen (technically called ischemia), and at the time of death, cessation of blood and oxygen supply results in damage to brain tissue. The last sentence of the mentioned note draws attention to the lack of consensus on the significance of these brain lesions of an ischemic nature (lesions that are only greater when the cryopreservation intervention is done later than the time of death).
Furthermore, the 61 signatures of the text seem to give credibility and authority to current cryonics-related approaches, but a closer look at the signatories shows that most of them, although teaching at universities or working in research environments, do not come from the medical field, but from fields outside medicine (physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, engineers, computer specialists). This diminishes the credibility of cryonics’ feasibility in it’s current state.
A modern religion
There are, however, many more arguments against current cryonics practices. Ken Storey, a world-renowned cryobiology specialist, is firmly convinced that all the current efforts of cryonics organizations are futile. If, in a few hundred years, someone were interested in talking to a man from the past, the society of the future might be interested in reviving perhaps a few cryopreserved people, he says. “But who is going to thaw the 500,000th person?”
As someone who has studied hibernation in several species, however, he argues that scientific obstacles are much more serious than sociological ones, obstacles related to the lack of interest of future humanity in the relics of the 21st century.
For instance, current cryonics organizations preserve human bodies at temperatures of -80° C and then -200° C. However, although hibernation is commonly used in support of cryonics, scientific data show that few vertebrates survive below -8° C and no vertebrate can survive at temperatures below -20° C, so it seems likely (or at least possible) that these excessively low temperatures do more harm than good. Studies in a species of frogs capable of hibernation have shown that during the hibernation process there is a massive flow of carbohydrates intended to protect cells.
However, “there is not enough sugar in the world” to protect human cells at temperatures of -200° C, he argues. In addition, he criticizes current cryopreservation practices, in which bodies are frozen “so slowly that all cells will die from lack of oxygen long before they freeze”.
In Ken Storey’s opinion, cryonics is “a modern religion”, and he is probably right. In light of current scientific data, you need a lot of faith to hope for a resurrection from an ice cemetery—as much faith as in the old Christian religion, which offers the chance to be resurrected for free. In addition, Christianity does not raise the issue of cryopreservation errors.
On the walls of a famous monastery in Romania, the scene of the resurrection is depicted in one of the most naïve and, at the same time, deeply emotional images: a wolf opens his mouth to give back the one it has eaten. The Christian hope of the resurrection is boundless. The sea opens its depths to return those lost in the depths, and the ash scattered to the four winds gathers to recompose the being.
Simpler and much cheaper than a lengthy and expensive cryonics services contract, but offering the same hope, is a smaller, one-page document, drafted over 1600 years ago on the basis of other older writings, which ends with the following words: “I believe in… the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen!”