The fantasy of cryonics in an unexpected place

We all seek immortality in some way. Death has been a terror of nearly all since humans first started realizing that everybody dies. After all, no one wants to face the end of everything that one has been, is, and will be, so much so that a key feature of many religions is a belief that death is not the end, that there is an afterlife where we will all live forever and where evil is punished and good rewarded. Even if, as seems most likely, death is simply the end, and the time after death is just like the time before we were born (or, more properly, before our first memories), something that seems relatively benign, we still don’t want it. Being human, I get it, particularly no that I’m on the wrong side of 50 and, unless I’m far more long-lived than my genes are likely to permit, have considerably less life to look forward to than the life time I’ve already lived. I also realize that the number of people who are remembered long after they are gone by anyone outside of their family and friends is exceedingly small—and even that memory fades rapidly among family members. As the succeeding generation dies off, direct memory of the generation that spawned it disappears. I get it.

I don’t, however, get cryonics.

Detroit, like many large cities, has a free weekly “alternative” newspaper, The Metro Times. This week’s episode features this cover:


Yes, it’s a cover story about cryonics. I had no idea that there was actually a budding cryonics industry around the Detroit area. Given the unfortunate decay of my hometown over the last 50 years and the brutal winter we endured last year, the jokes write themselves, but I’ll refrain from that. I’m more interested in the article itself, MI Cryonics Inst. freezes dead for ‘reanimation’: Souls on ice. If there’s a movement that resembles religion in having faith in something that doesn’t have evidence to support it, the cryonics movement is it. The article opens by describing a facility in Clinton Township, a suburb north of Detroit, where the body count tops 100, not counting critters, and “nestled inside Wal-Mart sleeping bags, the bodies stand upside-down within 10-foot-high tanks resembling immense white thermos bottles”:

This is the Cryonics Institute, and the people in those tanks — “cryostats,” they’re called — after being declared dead, have had their bodies frozen in perpetuity in the belief that future science may be able to thaw them, cure their ills, and, just maybe, return them to youthful vigor. They’ve made a bet: that in a time yet to come, they’ll rise again, with “death” only a temporary and reversible embarrassment easily remedied by medical know-how.

It’s an expensive bet that is likely never to be won. What struck me most reading this article is the power of wishful thinking, which has led an industry to spring up catering to our most primal fears and desires: Fear of death and desire for immortality. Admittedly, it’s a relatively small number of people. The article itself estimates that worldwide the number of people being frozen after death is “in the low double digits.” Out of the billions of people on this planet and the more than 50 million a year who die worldwide, we’re looking at an infinitesimally small fraction of the population.

Be that as it may, there’s no doubt that the technology to freeze living mammals (which is what humans are) has improved greatly and continues to improve. Unfortunately, there remains that problem of revivifying the frozen meat that is sitting in all that liquid nitrogen. Basically, when a person dies, something killed him. It could be disease. It could be trauma. It could just be some unlucky transient malfunction of an organ, such as a sudden arrhythmia that might have been survivable if treated in time or that a person might have had periodically, asymptomatically, for years but that until a single fatal incident resolved on its own. It could just be old age, the “running down” of the body. Even if it were actually possible to revive a frozen body, whatever killed the person would still be there.

Believers handwave that problem away:

“We’re not trying to bring people back to life. We don’t believe they’re really dead; if dead’s final, then they weren’t dead,” says Dennis Kowalski, president of the Cryonics Institute, which claims to have 1,100 living members worldwide. Members pay yearly dues of $120, or $1,250 for a lifetime membership, then about $28,000 when actually frozen. (In comparison, the average adult funeral in the United States costs about $8,000.) For many, life insurance benefits cover the preservation costs.


But death is a gray line, Kowalski says, and it’s always moving. What might have been terminal 150, 15, even five years ago is treatable today. Something as simple as CPR has saved countless lives; cardiac defibrillation — the “shock paddles” used to jump-start a stopped heart — has revived patients previously considered dead. What’s “dead” mean to medicine, other than a challenge? From that perspective, he says, a storehouse of frozen bodies is no more macabre than a heart transplant, a now-common medical procedure once considered grotesque.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. CPR and cardiac defibrillation can save lives because a fibrillating heart is still alive. Indeed, it's not even not beating. The muscle cells are still contracting and have electrical activity; they're just doing so in a disjointed way that doesn't produce meaningful contractions of the muscle mass that can produce any pumping power. If you've ever actually seen a heart that's fibrillating, you'll see it lamely twitching. The idea of the electrical shock is to "reset" all the cells to get them contracting in unison again. A heart that's just lying there is in systole, which is a state that defibrillation can rarely reverse. That’s why the ability of these interventions to save life rapidly declines with time after cardiac arrest. Within minutes, the heart muscle cells, deprived of oxygen-rich blood, start really dying. Once they do, no amount of CPR or defibrillation will get them working again. Basically, as soon as the heart stops, heart muscle cells start dying, and the more of them that die, the less the chance of getting the heart started again. Before defibrillation, patients only appeared “dead” because death at the time was defined as no pulse, no breathing, and no heartbeat, and the technology to get the heart going again before irreversible damage to the heart muscle occurred didn’t exist. Even so, occasionally people would “wake up” in response to a sharp blow to the chest.

The problem of the dead heart, however, is minor compared to the problem of the dead brain. The brain is highly metabolically active is thus exquisitely sensitive to interruptions in blood flow. As soon as the blood flow stops from a cardiac arrest, the brain starts losing cells, and it only takes a few minutes before severe and permanent brain damage occurs that rapidly progresses to brain death; i.e., the death of the neurons controlling the “higher’ functions. Sadly, many are the times that patients in cardiac arrest have been resuscitated, only have severe anoxic brain injury (injury due to lack of oxygen) or be brain dead. Granting the fantastical assumptions behind the cryonics movement, specifically that dead people can be frozen and then successfully revived, what about the brain? Everything that defines your consciousness and personality comes from the function of your brain.

Look at it this way. Memory is stored in the neural network somehow through poorly understood protein changes. Freezing usually involves the formation of crystals, which could easily disrupt those changes. If the brain could be frozen without those crystals, theoretically the information might still be there (assuming, of course, that the body was frozen before the brain turned to mush from hypoxic injury), there remains the question of recovering that information, which inevitably results in cryonics advocates, in essence, appealing to magic in the form of super future technology, most often nanobots. That’s not even counting fixing the physical damage to the brain from hypoxia that occurs after the cessation of blood flow and the freezing process itself, given the number of connections between the many billions of neurons in a single human brain.

Once that’s gone (or irreparably damaged), you’re gone. I like they way they put it in Rational Wiki: “Once you've fixed the body cells and the brain paths, you have a recovered corpse. Your next task is to resurrect the dead.” Just count the number of beliefs that are nothing more than wishful thinking in this paragraph:

Right now, though, cryonics is more like an in-progress medical trial. Advances in stem-cell research, nanotechnology, and therapeutic cloning give Kowalski and other cryonicists hope, but he admits there are no guarantees. Today’s frozen people are already dead, or “deanimated,” as some prefer; tomorrow’s helpful scientists will not only have to successfully thaw their “patients,” but return them to life. (And reunite them with their pets, though some are frozen out of generosity, their owners simply hoping to give their beloved animals more life.) That’s assuming, fingers crossed, that they’ve been frozen in a recoverable way, without too much tissue damage, and that they’ve been carefully maintained. Once thawed, they’ll have to be treated for being “dead,” by whatever methods would make that possible. And who wants to wake up alone in the future in a body already ravaged by time? Better to hope that a new, youthful body is waiting for you.

And if wishes were fishes...oh, never mind.

But think about it. First of all, such technological breakthroughs, even in the unlikely event that they were possible, are likely many decades, or even hundreds of years, in the future. If you were frozen and then revived, everyone you know, everything you knew in your life, would be gone. In its place would be a society where you would have no idea how to function and might not even be able to speak the language, given how language evolves over that span of time. Imagine, for instance, being transported back to Shakespeare’s time (in England, of course) and trying to communicate. You wouldn’t know anything that would allow you to make your way in the world. You’d be a curiosity to be studied at best, a burden on society at worst, all of which ignores the question of whether some future society and scientists would even want to revivify a bunch of decades- or centuries-old bodies. They might want to do a few to prove it could be done, but after that each succeeding body would just be another burden. Sooner or later, the scientific interest would wane, as would the desire to devote resources to it.

But what about the science? Cryonicists often point to the widespread freezing of embryos for in vitro fertilization (IVF), and it’s true. That works very well, and the viability rate after thawing is quite high. Of course, for IVF, we’re talking about structures that are usually only eight cells. As a biomedical researcher, I know that it’s quite possible to freeze human cells for cell culture indefinitely and revive them with only relatively small percentages of cells dying. There’s a huge difference between freezing suspensions consisting of single cells or embryos consisting of a cluster of a few cells and freezing a large mammal like a human being. It’s often pointed out that there are cases in which humans have survived severe hypothermia and been revived after warming. Such cases are relatively uncommon (most still die), and I can’t help but note that in no cases that I’ve been able to find has a “human popsicle” (i.e., a human frozen solid) ever survived and been revived.

Let’s just put it this way. Even though some small animals, particularly cold blooded animals like frogs, can survive partial freezing and some insects can survive freezing, that doesn’t mean cryonics is feasible. Indeed, lacking examples of a single decent-sized mammal being successfully frozen and revivified, I have a hard time seeing the promise of cryonics being the least bit feasible. After all, if we can’t even freeze a living animal in liquid nitrogen and revive it, what makes one think we can freeze a dead human and revive him or her? Let’s just put it this way, the plausibility of cryonics doesn’t quite reach homeopathy-level, mainly because it doesn’t require violating well-accepted laws of physics, but that’s the only reason it isn’t homeopathy-level. When Michael Shermer is quoted in the article saying “It is not impossible for cryonics to succeed; it is just exceptionally unlikely,” from a scientific standpoint he is being exceptionally optimistic.

Perhaps what’s the worst about this is that people spend incredible amounts of money, which could be used to make their lives now better or be passed on to their heirs, chasing immortality. Cryonics is not, as its advocates say, an “ongoing medical trial. Rather, those who choose to freeze themselves are more akin to the ancient Phaorohs, who spent enormous resources constructing elaborate tombs, so that they will one day rise from the grave and live again. Instead, they are found thousands of years later and end up in museums around the world.


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the “shock paddles” used to jump-start a stopped heart

Not exactly "stopped". As Orac and other online doctors keep repeating, it's useless to shock a flatline.
The shock paddles are actually doing a hard reboot - stopping an heart with desynchronized, arrhythmic cycles and hoping it will restart by itself on a more correct rhythm.

Better to hope that a new, youthful body is waiting for you.

Better to hope it would be an anencephalic clone. If not, you are just going to murder someone (there is this brain already occupying this youthful body, and it's not yours...)

As a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold, I'm disappointed this institute doesn't have a better story to sell.
For the troubles with a society going cryonics, "Cryoburn" is a good read.

As for cryonics themselves, I like the final spin from Larry Niven short story "wait it out".

By Helianthus (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

As It happens I became interested in science from reading science fiction, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. But it is important to maintain the distinction between the two. In science fiction the author has artistic license to hand-wave around the difficulties of implementing any technology that is critical to the story line, such as cryonics, which is one of the more common future technologies in science fiction (e.g., in 2001 three of the crew on the Jupiter-bound ship are in suspended animation). Real scientists and engineers have to confront those difficulties, and in the case of cryonics these difficulties are indeed formidable. As you say, nothing about the process violates any known laws of physics or chemistry, so there may be a way to do it[1]. That doesn't mean it will be easy, or cost-effective, to do it. Or ethical, for that matter.

[1]Some would go farther, based on what's called the totalitarian principle of physics: Whatever is not forbidden is compulsory. But even granting this point, all it tells us is that a solution exists; it tells us nothing about how to obtain the solution.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

There is a lot urban legend around these things. Two examples that come to mind areTed Williams and Walt Disney who are both alleged to be currently frozen (…, but apparently maybe not true for Disney-- Nevertheless every time my kids play the Disney movie Frozen on the DVD player, it is hard not to picture Walt somewhere in those walls of ice, Waiting to be thawed and re-animated by one of his princesses (

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

'Souls on Ice' sounds like a 1970s album from Detroit
( a/k/a 'MoTown').
Can you dig it?

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I'm reminded of the Larry Niven short story, wherein a "corpsicle" was revived several centuries after his freezing, to learn that he was expected to "pay off" the cost of his storage and revivification and, because it would be impossible for him to re-integrate into a society that had changed so much in the interim, the only possible career he could occupy was as a deep space explorer in a one-man ship.

Niven's ideas on how a person would be revived were very interesting. The original body was, indeed, destroyed by freezing and thawing, but a person's memories could be retrieved via some handwavey RNA process and transferred into the memory of a criminal who had been punished by de-facto execution - his memory totally wiped clean.

I'm not 100% sure, but I think the story was called "Rocket Man".

Seems like the Egyptian funerary cult is not about resurrection but for ensuring the vitality of the deceased in the underworld. They believed even a dead man needed his body and that's why they took great pains to preserve it, protect it, and supply it with every need. If the ancients could have put cryochambers in their desert tombs, they surely would have. But only for purposes of preservation. After all, why should anyone return to the topside?

But the notion that the soul can survive only as long as the body is preserved foreshadows the modern scientific contention that the psyche arises from the brain and it not a semi-autonomous force capable of transmigration. Although the Egyptians pulled out mummies' brains through their noseholes and presumably washed them down the gutter, believing the heart to be the seat of the soul, and only the visceral organs necessary for survival.

By Wesley Dodson (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Cold comfort, indeed.

I think the astronauts in 2001 were supposed to be in a deep cryogenically-induced sleep, not frozen solid.

One can get a temporary reprieve from the mammalian diving reflex. Some years back a woman was trapped in a car upside down in a freezing-cold river for what seemed like way too long -- very fortunately the car behind her had two physicians on their way to work, who, once they'd gotten her disentangled, did CPR on her and were amazed and (of course) delighted when she came around with no apparent permanent damage. But it's a pretty short reprieve!

By palindrom (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I haven't bought into the whole "freeze yourself for later" movement myself, but I believe the argument is that $30,000 for the chance to live forever, or even for an extra hundred years (of presumed good health), is a paltry sum to pay. It's the price of a car, for chrissake.

By Tim Martin (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I don't get the idea of freezing corpses, either. When real-life animals go into hibernation (or embryos go into cold storage), they're alive - and once they return to regular temperatures, they're still alive. You'd almost be better off taking the money you're spending on cryogenics and instead paying to have the best MRI and other scans on your brain and nervous system that money can buy, with the hopes that future folks might consider using that to recreate your mind (assuming "uploaded" and "simulated" humans are possible, something that may not be the case).

I don't fault the impulse, though. I want to see what the future brings, especially since everything is changing so quickly. I'm still young, so I might be lucky in that regard if we figure out some anti-aging stuff in the next few decades - but for someone in their 50s and 60s, I can understand the fear.

I should've added that this happened in my area - she was driving two children to school, who were extracted right away and had suffered no serious injuries. I can't imagine how anxious those minutes would have been for those kids.

By palindrom (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Brett @9 - It'd probably work just as well (i.e., not work at all) to get a plastic surgeon to implant a USB port in the back of your neck - but at least then you'd be able to mess with people.

By palindrom (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

So there's this dude, Paul Crowley, who was considering signing up for cryonics in 2010, and he solicited comments on his blog. The substantive issues you raise here (brain death, motivations to resuscitate) were raised by commenters. He looked into it further, and he found that

...there is not one person who has ever taken the time to read and understand cryonics claims in any detail, still considers it pseudoscience, and has written a paper, article or even a blog post to rebut anything that cryonics advocates actually say. In fact, the best of the comments on my first blog post on the subject are already a higher standard than anything my searches have turned up."

(emphasis in the original)…

By Corey Yanofsky (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I could see the Boston Red Sox trying to reanimate Ted Williams (their offense needs plenty of help), but who would ever bother with trying to revive ordinary mortals many years in the future?

It's not as if there's going to be an extreme shortage of run-of-the-mill humans decades or centuries from now, assuming the technology is ever there to thaw and reanimate the dead.

The likely scenario is these facilities eventually shutting down due to lack of payment of utility bills, slowly thawing corpses and a mess for someone else to clean up.

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I like cryonics. It's the secular version of Pascal's Wager.

By The Grouchybeast (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

That Niven book: "A World Out of Time". I recall reading it many years ago. It's a mildly entertaining read.

Suspended animation also featured in the Star Trek classic episode "Space Seed".

I think there was a recent story about whether Ted Williams' brain had even been properly maintained.

But, cryonics is a completely unproven technology. Even a longer shot than a Burzynski cancer cure.

I just finished listening to the Audible version of Cryoburn with my wife. It's very thought-provoking.

By squirrelelite (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

If I were a scientist living and working in the future, I wouldn't want to thaw out any corpsicles at all. Concern that I might reintroduce smallpox or a nasty flu strain into a world which hadn't seen the like for centuries would outweigh my curiosity.

By Rich Woods (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

My first thought was a part of Gullivers Travels, where he ends on a floating island in the sky I think. There are some people who are immortal and they are more or less considered doomed, because their friends may not be immortal and they might be immortal, but the aging proces still goes on and on and on, so their body starts to degrade and their brains as well, which means their memory functions degrade as well

DB @13: This is why, even if the problems of cryonics are solved, it is likely to be available only to rich people. As long as you can assume a stable legal system over the relevant time frame, the person being frozen can set up an endowment that would cover the maintenance costs from investment income. Many charitable organizations, including most universities in the US, operate along similar lines. Of course, you have to be rich to do that.

Then, assuming the person can be thawed, he might try the sort of scam perpetrated by the protagonist of Greg Benford's short story "Doing Lennon". The premise of this story (obviously written before Lennon's assassination in 1980) is that after being revived, the protagonist claims to be John Lennon, and pretends to adopt the sort of politics Lennon was known for in the late 1960s ("Lennon read a book on Marx", as Don McLean put it). Since of course nobody is alive who was alive during Lennon's lifetime, he gets away with it--until he hears a report that they are going to unfreeze Paul McCartney.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

@ Brett #9: A story (sci-fi, of course) that goes after this from a realistic angle is "The Silicon Man" by Charles Platt (1991). The premise is that if you are killed properly (apparently with chilling and infusion of the proper preservatives) then your brain can be thin sliced and scanned by an EM microscope to the level of being able to recreate all your synaptic connections (along with needing a whole lotta computing power). The "map" of your brain is then uploaded into a computer where (goes the story) you become cognizant within the computer's OS (named MAPHIS). It's actually a pretty good read, even for a story from way back in '91.

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I have a fantasy about cryonics. It goes like this:

8:31 pm Friday night: "Well, kids, it's time to goto sleepy time" (turns on cryonic chambers)

8:32 pm Friday Night - 11:30 pm Sunday Night: Vodka Saturated Dance Epidemic With Bonus Naps And Adult Times

6:45 am Monday Morning: (turns off cryonic chambers) "Time to get up for school, kids! Did you have a good night sleep?"

Repeat as necessary.

By passionlessDrone (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Spending an eternity in paradise is as flat-lined as it's possible to get. Regression to the mean within the first five years; after that, boredom takes over. Lottery winners have provided more than adequate evidence.

I use to think that they froze living people (I didn't think about it that thoroughly) . If they did, and could somehow adequately mitigate the damage caused by freezing (hahaha...) then maybe, perhaps, some future civilization with super advanced tech could revive or just recover the information. The only motivation I would see them having for actually doing it is to prove it's done and essentially conduct anthropological studies/get some entertainment.

However, already dead, usually been dead for a couple hours, people? Yeah, um, no, your brain is mush. They'd need a time machine or magic.

Not to mention the microorganisms that your body lives in symbiosis with being killed off in the cryo. For instance the intestininal bacterium. You'd wake up in a body almost completely sterile.(not sexually, though that is a possibility.)

A question I've wondered about though. If I put together a cell, does it simply come alive, or does it need stimulation? It seems to me that cells are very much less about life and more about reaction. In other words, things happen, about as natural as a rock rolling down a hill, just way more complex.

I would only add that Robert Silverberg's fabulous short story "Born with the dead" gives a vey good description of what it would actually mean if re-animation could ever work. The risen dead would not be like us, and I for one, would not want to be like them.
Read the story. I would not choose cryonics even were it feasible. It is just wrong

By Chet Morrison (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Chet, Chris Hickie, Helianthus,rs: Thanks for the reading recommendations. I will be trawling the library for these and hope they come in before I head up North. Except for Cyroburn, because it's around here somewhere.

As for cryonics, cripes, even writers for kid's cartoons and comic books know better than to expect that it'd work. Look at what happened to Mr. Freeze. Especially 'Meltdown' from Batman Beyond.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

In his biography "Homage to Gaia" James Lovelock claims to been involved with the re-animation of frozen hamsters in the early 1950s. He was working at the Mill Hill Institute (London, UK) with a biologist called Audrey Smith. She was working on a technique developed by a "Yugoslav biologist, Andjus" who would try to re-animate frozen hamsters by applying hot metal to the chest close to the heart, so that the heart would be beating before the rest of the animal thawed out and the thawed cells would not perish from lack of blood.

Lovelock states that he had the idea of using a war-surplus radio transmitter as a heater (a primitive microwave oven) to heat the hamster from the inside out. This, apparently, worked much better.

Does anyone know if anything came of this research? Lovelock certainly implies that it worked at least some of the time. (This comes from pp 113-5 of my paperback edition of the book.)

By Nigel Dowrick (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Wesley -- you are correct that the Egyptians were not preserving the body out of the notion that it would be resurrected. It was dead. Really most sincerely dead. But the soul was a different matter, and one aspect of the soul, the ka, would live on in the afterlife. Deprived of the body, it would no longer have a reference for how it was supposed to look, so Egyptians took pains to make sure the body remained intact as a good reference. They also provided paintings and statutes -- the wealthier you were, the better representations you could have made. You could even arrange for some improvement on the original to be made, a sort of post-mortem cosmetic surgery for the deceased. ;-) But in general, they tried to be accurate for the ka's sake, to avoid confusing it -- if it was too confused, it might not be able to reunited with the ba, another part of the soul, which would lead to a more lasting sort of death -- a permanently disembodied state.

So . . . I guess what I'm saying is cryonics really has nothing to do with ancient Egypt. ;-) I mean, it would probably suffice for their purposes, but they'd probably dislike being reliant on an electrical supply. They'd probably prefer Plastination. Very long-lasting. ;-)

By Calli Arcale (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

The premise is that if you are killed properly (apparently with chilling and infusion of the proper preservatives) then your brain can be thin sliced and scanned by an EM microscope to the level of being able to recreate all your synaptic connections (along with needing a whole lotta computing power). The “map” of your brain is then uploaded into a computer.

Now there is a Brain Research Foundation trying to put that into practice (composed of computer engineers rather than neuroscientists, and thus they have seriously underestimated the difficulty of the task, such as has NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE in the history of Artificial Intelligence). All the cool kids are opting for immediate perfusion of their severed heads with glutaraldehyde ("a kind of advanced embalming process"), then impregnation with osmium tetroxide, followed by Gunter-von-Hagen style plastination. Then the slicing and scanning.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I don't know about cryogenics but some critters at least can survive a few days in deep freeze.

Our director got a very nasty phone call one day from the state lab. It seems that one of our wardens (we are one of the few counties in the state where Animal Control falls under the health department) had frozen what he thought was a dead bat for shipment to the lab for rabies testing.

The sucker scared some poor tech out of half a year's growth when it woke up.

The bat was almost certainly not completely frozen. There are no well-documented cases I'm aware of of mammals surviving true deep freeze, in which they are completely frozen solid. Rational Wiki, for instance, deals with the story of the mice supposedly frozen in liquid nitrogen and later revived. If the account there is accurate, the story seems to be apocryphal, and no one has ever been able to reproduce the experiment.

I would only add that Robert Silverberg’s fabulous short story “Born with the dead” gives a vey good description of what it would actually mean if re-animation could ever work.

Arrgh. That story sounds very, very familiar, but I can't remember anything about it. I used to read a fair amount of Silverberg; so it's likely that I read it at one time or another. I might have to go find it again to read it.

Stephen Leacock used to tell a story about a frozen animal as a humorous bit. Granted, in his case, the animal in question was a goldfish, and the goldfish was almost certainly not completely frozen through despite having been in an unheated tank in the Montreal winter, but he claimed it actually happened. Look up 'Wanted: A Gold-fish'. I think there's another more dramatized version of that in one of his later collections as well, somewhere.

By Jenora Feuer (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Well, at least that hamster wasn't my mother. But my father did smell of elderberries.

I was sort of hoping this discussion would get contentious, so I could tell everybody to just ... chill.

On a serious note: It's hard to imagine any way of reviving a person who has had a horrible traumatic injury. Now suppose we could keep you alive, healthy, and disease-free indefinitely. This would completely change the risk calculus of everyday life. To reap the rewards of your very long life would mean obsessively avoiding any activity that carried any risk of injury, no matter how slight -- you wouldn't even want to cross the street.

That would strike me as mighty dull, eventually. Not only that, but the world would rapidly get way too crowded (no, we're not going to other planets. Trust me on this).

By palindrom (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink


Not to mention the microorganisms that your body lives in symbiosis with being killed off in the cryo. For instance the intestininal bacterium.

I'm not so sure about that, unless the cryotechnicians/embalmers go out of their way to flush out your gut flora. Bacteria are quite resilient to deep-freeze, especially with a bit of glycerol.
While we need billions of cells to be working together to stay alive, a bacterium's functional unit is the single cell. And since there are trillions of these single bacteria cells in a standard human being, a few of them are bound to survive.

Actually, bacteria may be the firsts to wake up.

Dangerous changes in the gut flora, and the revived subject going out of his cryo cuve to face a completely unknown population of bacteria and viruses, that I will concede.

To keep on the reading guide, Edmond About, a French novelist, wrote a story in 1862, L'Homme à l'oreille cassée (the man with the broken ear) about a Grognard who was frozen and lyophlized by a German scientist during the Napoleonic wars and revived during the reign of Louis-Napoleon III, about 40 years later.
Cultural clash and political pamphlet ensue, as, both in fiction and in real life, the poor Louis-Napoleon was never able to measure up to Napoleon the 1st.

The reason I thought of this story is because you brought up the topic of the gut flora. Spoiler: at the end, the poor veteran dies off-screen, and the author was evasive on the cause of death. Maybe suicide out of cultural shock, maybe the soldier's gut flora went rogue and he died of a massive infection.

The story is available for free in electronic form (at least in French, I don't know about English translation). A good read for those interested in middle 19th-century French politics. Not much sci-fi in it, although the medically-inclined may find distracting the desiccation and reviving processes the poor soldier was subjected to.


As for cryonics, cripes, even writers for kid’s cartoons and comic books know better than to expect that it’d work.

Oh, you can find a whole body of science-fiction in which cryonics work most of the time, pending outside disruptive intervention.
However, you are right pointing out that a bunch of authors have explored the ethics, scientific and cultural issues surrounding the freezing of a human being. They did it more or less seriously, more or less scientifically.
It's fiction, not real. But still. Some philosophical questions have been asked, they are floating around for the culturally-minded to debate.
I am finding a bit annoying and disquieting that a real-life entrepreneur is seeing nothing wrong with freezing someone with the expressed purpose of fitting his brain inside a younger body. He is perpetuating the idea that a human being could be raised only to be used as spare parts.
Could I say that this cryonic strategy looks like a Faustian deal?

By Helianthus (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink


So . . . I guess what I’m saying is cryonics really has nothing to do with ancient Egypt. ;-) I mean, it would probably suffice for their purposes, but they’d probably dislike being reliant on an electrical supply.

But the Ancient Egyptians had an almost unlimited supply of electricity ;-)

On a more serious note, the late Robert Anton Wilson had his daughter Luna's body partially cryogenically* preserved when she was tragically murdered in a robbery in 1976, Despite the unlikelihood of this working (her body was only found the day after her murder), I found the futile desperation of a grieving father poignant, especially since he was only able to raise enough money to freeze her head.

* Is 'cryogenically' a word? Or should it be 'cryonically preserved'? Perhaps I'll stick with 'frozen' in future.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

Dammit, I got an angle bracket the wrong way round. Try this, 'Cold Lazarus'. BTW, it's a grim dytopian vision of the future with (IIRC) a man's revived frozen head pleading for death. My previous description was sarcastic.

By Krebiozen (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

The problem with cryonics is heat transfer. You need to avoid the formation of ice crystals and the way to do that is by freezing so quickly that you confine blood and tissue to a glassy state without crystalization. It's kind of like making ice cream. Conventionally, ice cream is churned and ingredients are added-sucrose, fats, ethanol, albumin, agarose-to prevent large ice crystals. But while churning the blood and tissue of a person while freezing may give him a creamy texture, it won't help revive him. If you flash freeze small droplets of cream and sugar mixture in liquid nitrogen, you get Dippin Dots (TM), which are creamy and delicious. But if you put a litre of the same mixture in liquid nitrogen without stirring, you get a block with a creamy exterior and an icy interior. No matter how fast the outside freezes-and remember we are limited here by absolute zero-the conductive heat transfer from the outside in is going to be relatively slow, allowing time for large ice crystals to form and tear cell membranes and tissues to shreds. Maybe we could pump the body full of sucrose and ethanol to mitigate ice crystal formation. Then when the body is thawed (and resurrected) they can cure the diabetes and cirrhosis as well. But sugar and rum aren't going to be enough to stop formation of ice crystals. Antifreeze proteins from arctic cod? Also, not efficient enough. Might we see, sometime in the future, a mouse frozen and revived? I wouldn't discount that entirely. But mice are small and the technological feasibility of cryonics scales inversely with size. We won't be reviving frozen dead guys.

After all, no one wants to face the end of everything that one has been, is, and will be, so much so that a key feature of many religions is a belief that death is not the end, that there is an afterlife where we will all live forever and where evil is punished and good rewarded.

The belief that death is not the end is a key feature of nearly all religions, in one way or another. But I can only think of two that believe we're all destined for an eternal afterlife where evil is punished and good rewarded. .

And yet, it feels like quibbling to say so. For some reason,


It's just that Christianity's more pervasively influential than it's easy to recognize and/or admit, I guess. In the western world, at least.

Hel: I am finding a bit annoying and disquieting that a real-life entrepreneur is seeing nothing wrong with freezing someone with the expressed purpose of fitting his brain inside a younger body. He is perpetuating the idea that a human being could be raised only to be used as spare parts.
Could I say that this cryonic strategy looks like a Faustian deal?

Yes, and also that the gentleman in question has a poor grasp of fiction. Sounds like he mistook Jackson's Whole for a utopia.

Kreb: BTW, it’s a grim dytopian vision of the future with (IIRC) a man’s revived frozen head pleading for death.

I can't help but see parallels with the episode I mentioned above. Fries wasn't exactly pleading, but close enough.
And I think it was pretty clear that you were being sarcastic in the first post.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

It all reminds me of trying to decide whether I would want to be the donor or the recipient of a brain transplant.

As my Auntie Em used to say when she was flummoxed by some new-fangled thing, “we’ll all end up being heads in jars”.

In an old "Treehouse of Horror" Simpsons episode, Burns and Smithers steal Homer's brain for some Frankenstein monster (big mistake, since it crashes through walls in search of doughnuts).

As they prepare to lift Homer's brain out of his head, Smithers expresses reservations, and Burns delivers the immortal line: "Dammit, Smithers! This isn't rocket science! It's brain surgery!"

By palindrom (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

The bat was almost certainly not completely frozen

It was almost certainly not completely dead, either.

Yah, well, the bat was probably mostly dead...

MIRACLE MAX: See, there’s a big difference between mostly dead, and all dead. Now, mostly dead: he’s slightly alive. All dead, well, with all dead, there’s usually only one thing that you can do.

INIGO: What’s that?

MIRACLE MAX: Go through his clothes and look for loose change.

Most of these cryonics people died of terminal illnesses. Even if they could be revived (and weren't frostbitten, mush brained vegetables) they'd be no better off alive than at the point they expired. It's kind of silly really.

While there would be a large amount of fame associated with a team who reanimated one of these people, the ethics of raising them would several large volumes.

So I don't see any reason any doctor future or present who'd go anywhere near these people.

With cryonics there was the whole auxiliary fantasy that Nanotech would make it possible to repair the cellular freezing damage, with little microcellular robots whizzing around through the brain tissue stitching together the ruptured cell membranes and putting protein configurations back the way they should be. None of these people really had any grasp of physics or chemistry, so their ignorance of biology was just icing on the whole failcake.

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 31 Jul 2014 #permalink

I'm reminded of the somewhat-overrated comic book series Transmetropolitan, where cryonics has resulted in a rash of "Revivals" - people so badly culture-shocked after emerging into the future world (a world where people don't even know what year it is due to an unspecified catastrophe) that they wander the City, blank-eyed and mute.

In that story, they only freeze your head - your memories get transferred into a cloned body through somewhat hand-waved procedures (Ellis wasn't interested in the science, just the social satire).

By Man CalledTrue (not verified) on 01 Aug 2014 #permalink

After reading The Door Into Summer where cryogenics are described as go to sleep today, wake up in 20 years or 40 years or 100 years after your investments that you've put into a prudent trust have worked for you (see also The Sleeper Wakes), I can understand the appeal. On the other hand, I think Larry Niven was closer to right. The frozen will be declared dead and their estates distributed per inheritance law. Any trusts would be terminated. Even if they could revive people, nobody would bother (there are going to be 10 billion people in a few short years, why would you be important enough to bother with?). Even in Niven's story where they put a man's personality into a mind wiped criminal, a) the person was still considered to be the criminal who had to continue paying his way and b) if it didn't work, wiping him again and starting with a personality from a new corpsicle isn't murder.

By Mephistopheles… (not verified) on 01 Aug 2014 #permalink

Oh my, the Freezers for Geezers club is still alive and kicking!

Cryo / Nano isn't the only pseudoscience / tech cult religion on the block. There is also The Singularity, or as I call it, Singularitology, about which more momentarily.

These beliefs are dangerous to society at-large, as follows:

They constitute a partial religion, with a deity (nanotech or computer-Gods) and a hereafter (immortality via nano resurrection, or via reincarnation into a computer), but _without a coherent moral/ethical code_. As long as you can pay the cost, you've got a ticket to Forever. It doesn't matter how you get the money, and I'd bet the cost of a nice flat in the city that these cryo organisations wouldn't turn down the guy who funded Al Qaeda's attacks on the UK & US. They certainly wouldn't turn down the Wall Street fraudsters who crashed the world economy. 'Mr. Dimon, your cryo-suite is ready.'

What this does is create a perverse incentive for crime in high places, as a ticket to Forever. For the vast masses it creates a perverse incentive to consign their children's inheritances to a slot in a freezer. In this way it decapitalises society to pay for what in the end is an exercise in pure narcissism: 'Me, Me, Me!'

For those who can't afford to get their whole bodies frozen, they can be decapitated and have only their heads frozen: so if you can't get a life, at least you can get a head.

The Nanobots that perform the resurrection are of course pure magic, which makes them either pseudoscientific rubbish or the angelic beings of the Cryo/Nano religion.

Singularitology is even worse, because it has a large number of adherents in high places, including Sergey Brin (he of Google fame) and a bunch of his buddies in Silicon Valley California. The idea is that you can have your mind transferred from your brain into a computer and thereby achieve immortality.

Orac, these people are True Believers, and they are dominating the high tech economy at the moment. It's as if the biotech industry suddenly got infested with homeoquacks. Given the serious influence these people wield, I'd say this subject is at least as deserving of train loads of insolence as Mikey Adams.

The pseudoscience of Singularitology is that it hinges entirely on the prospect of high-tech reincarnation: separating a mind from an organic brain and uniting it with a silicon brain. Why this is pernicious rubbish should be readily apparent to everyone here, but if not, I'll gladly expound on the topic for another six to ten paragraphs;-)

Suffice to say: If you can reincarnate into a computer, you can also reincarnate into a cat, and personally I'd choose the cat.

I know far too many people in Silicon Valley who think Jackson's Whole is a Utopia. I have met people who think it is a good idea to have offshore research labs where you don't need no stinkin' IRB approval or informed consent. (And given that autism is one of the things they want to "cure" this way, I'm one of the people they'd want to experiment ON. Except they'll be experimenting on rich people's kids instead.)

When it comes to autistic children, experimenting without the "stinkin' IRB approval or informed consent" already seems to be the rule, in DAN circles at least (secretin, chelation, hyperbaric oxygen and stem-cell injections -- to mention just a few of Jeff Bradstreet's treatments).

By herr doktor bimler (not verified) on 05 Aug 2014 #permalink

The idea is that you can have your mind transferred from your brain into a computer and thereby achieve immortality.

This concept annoys me. Your mind is a product of your brain. When the brain is destroyed, the mind ceases to be. Consciousness stops, forever. If it is possible to make some sort of copy of your mind in a computer, that's nice for the people left behind, because they'll have a copy to continue to interact with, but it doesn't do you any good. Unless you're a dualist, I suppose.

What I'm thinking of when I read Singularitology is The Prestige(movie), and Ghost Brigades(book). Who are you when you reincarnate? The original person dies, but then there's a copy, a person who for all intents and purposes is you, but isn't. You still die. So the computer you might think it's you, but you still have to suffer your death, and not come back, what's there is rather a legacy.

It's clear that you are against cryopreservation and that's fine. But, the science behind it that you've mocked only reflects on your ignorance in the subject. The main incentive to take part in this "medical experiment" is that you're not risking anything if it fails. You have GOT to do some research because you're are just so wrong throughout this entire article. Firstly, an individual being cryopreserved isn't "frozen". That person is deeply cooled with a formula that prevents the formation of ice crystals. This is such easy information to find, that it seems as though you intentionally leave it out to make your opinion seem more concrete. Secondly, this person being revived is not "thawed out" haha, because, technically, they were never frozen. Lastly, nanotechnology is a very viable way to repair the brain and body. With the advancement of medical knowledge today, it's no doubt that this will only improve with time. What we do know for fact is that those who choose not to be cryopreserved have the most to lose. Do your research and prepare to be very surprised at how affordable and how smart of a decision this is. My choice to be cryopreserved was an easy one.

One of my favorite episodes of radio documentary This American Life, called Mistakes Were Made, includes the story of what happened to the people frozen by the Cryonics Society of California, a group of enthusiastic, sincere amateurs.

I'm linking to the transcript, which links to the actual audio.

By BoxTurtle (not verified) on 09 Aug 2014 #permalink

Jessica: I'm not 'against cryonics. ' Speaking for myself, I think it'd be cool, if it worked. So far, it's mainly been an industry full of grifters and the gullible.

Jess: That person is deeply cooled with a formula that prevents the formation of ice crystals.

How is that different from being frozen?

Jess: Lastly, nanotechnology is a very viable way to repair the brain and body.

Aside from science fiction, nano-tech is a pretty new science. It's a long way away from being cleared for use in humans.
And a lot can happen in a few decades- while medical knowledge will certainly improve, I doubt those improvements will be available in the US. Heck, five decades from now it's an open question whether women and minorities will even be able to vote, let alone access medical treatment.

By Politicalguineapig (not verified) on 09 Aug 2014 #permalink