March 1999
s m u g
smoking jacket
by Gregory Alkaitis-Carafelli

Death, on the Rocks

As news outlets begin to grasp at straws for interesting gloom-and-doom-style stories that are also light and easy to swallow to fill air time and column-inches as the new millenium approaches, they will surely cast new light on one of the most neglected extended fads of these past few decades: cryonics. I do not refer to the science of very low temperatures -- that's cryogenics, and they flame you fast in the sci.cryonics newsgroup for being such an idiot and confusing the two. Cryonics refers to the idea of extending life by being stored at extremely low temperatures only to be revived in a future advanced technological society. While it might be dismissed at first as a wacky scam or just plain wacky and unfeasible, that hasn't stopped a growing number of hardcore proponents of cryonics from signing up for cold storage at a respectable clip, despite the lack of technology to revive suspended "patients" or even prospects of such technology being viable in the future. The cost for this "suspension" procedure alone can range from US$28,000 to US$150,000 depending on which organization freezes you, and like buying a new car, there are a wide range of dealers and product options to choose from.

If you're cost-conscious, the budget route is neuro-suspension, a fancy term for "head only," a service which the ALCOR Life Extension Foundation will provide for a mere US$50,000, which thoughtfully includes cremation and burial-at-sea of your non-frozen remains. That's assuming you have enough confidence in medical science to believe techniques for growing a replacement body for your thawed-out head will be possible. But to play it safe ups the ante: the logistics and storage space involved in keeping your whole body intact and in a liquid nitrogen bath raises the price considerably -- ALCOR's charge leaps to US$120,000; competitor TransTime Inc. suggests US$150,000 is the minimum amount for a whole body suspension, while the Cryonics Institute, which seems to be the industry equivalent to Sam's Club, will freeze and store your whole body for only US$28,000. Caveat emptor.

Fees are paid in advance of course, usually in the form of a life insurance policy with your cryonics organization of choice as sole irrevocable beneficiary. It's not surprising that all cryonics companies have staff available to advise you on the best way to handle the complicated tangle of legal paperwork involved in arranging to be frozen -- some even offer student and volume discounts (handy if you're planning on making arrangements for your whole family). Of course, to keep the ordinary Joe off the street from just signing up for a suspension procedure on a whim, certain organizations impose "application fees" and annual "membership fees" above and beyond their charge to freeze and store you. ALCOR's annual membership fee of US$360, for example, would add about US$15,000 to the cost of my suspension if I signed up right now and then died (or "ended my first life cycle," as die-hards would refer to it) 65 years young.

What exactly happens to individuals who have contracted to be frozen when they die? After being pronounced medically dead, their body will be packed in water ice and their heart started again with the assistance of a heart/lung machine. Blood is flushed out and a "cryoprotectant" is circulated in its stead with a goal of evacuating as much water as possible from the corpse to minimize damage from the ice that will form and rupture cells as the patient is cooled. The exact composition of this cryoprotectant fluid differs from organization to organization, but the main ingredient is the same: glycerol, which like automobile anti-freeze has a much lower freezing point than plain water.

Different cryonics organizations employ different procedures to get patients the rest of the way to -179 degrees Celsius. While some companies prefer to use a thoracic surgeon to crack open the rib cage for access to the heart, the better to use the body's circulatory system to flush the cryoprotectant solution from head to toe, others prefer to use veterinarians or licensed morticians, and make do with the femoral arteries in the groin. The end result is the same: cold storage at -179 degrees Celsius, liquid nitrogen temperature. To date there are about forty people in cryonic suspension, contrary to popular myth Walt Disney not among them, awaiting advances in nanotechnology, which most interested in cryonics agree will be the key enabling technology in safely thawing out suspended patients. Nanotechnology will let doctors, according to a paper by Xerox researcher, Ralph Merkle, "build fleets of computer controlled molecular tools much smaller than a human cell and built with the accuracy and precision of drug molecules." These tools would make repair of the damage freezing causes possible by allowing medical science to "intervene in a sophisticated and controlled way at the cellular and molecular level."

These sub-cell sized tools however are still a long way away from being a practical reality, and in addition to the technological gamble the prospective cryonaut undertakes, there are also some say serious moral and ethical problems with the idea of extending life. ALCOR's promotional literature counters, saying cryonics is "just another way of giving people what they are already trying to get, and what they have wanted for thousands of years: a longer, healthier life."

Regardless of what people want or don't want, I'm sure media outlets will find plenty of material in the evolution and state of the cryonics movement to throw to their Y2K-weary audiences, and when you've had enough at least you'll know who to blame.



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