Humans have sought to conquer mortality since the dawn of consciousness. Our quest for longevity is illustrated by the earliest cave paintings, by rituals throughout human history and, in modern times, by the money-spinning industry that is medical research.
Myths of the ‘Fountain Of Youth’ have sprung independently in many different cultures ever since the birth of storytelling. But of all our cultural, mystical and scientific pursuit of everlasting life over the years, surely the most outlandish, the most audacious attempt to cheat death, is cryonics: the storage of the deceased in sub-zero temperatures in the hope of reanimation in years, decades or centuries to come.
The cryonics movement’s inception came in 1964 when American academic Robert CW Ettinger wrote The Prospect of Immortality. In it, he argued that there is no reason why imminent technological advances shouldn’t be used to bring the deceased back to life.
Reactions to the book were mixed. There was plenty of interest from broader-minded individuals – Isaac Asimov, for one. The hugely respected Russian-born American sci-fi author and professor of biochemistry was just one high-profile boffin who declared the book’s science to be sound.
However, the response from the general public ranged from disgust (the whole notion conjured up ghoulish images of vast laboratories full of severed heads in jars) to derision – a popular joke about cryonicists beginning their meetings by singing “Freeze a jolly good fellow!” being a prime example.
Nevertheless, at one point in the mid-Sixties, some US authorities feared a huge number of people may opt for life extension over burial or cremation, creating a storage-space issue.
While that scenario didn’t quite unfold, America’s two major cryonics organisations, The Alcor Life Extension Foundation and The Cryonics Institute, currently house around 2,000 members between them worldwide, and there are already more than 200 people (and reportedly a handful of pets) in sub-zero
limbo – mostly in the US but some in Russia.
Former Boston Red Sox big hitter Ted Williams, who died in 2002, is probably the most famous person whose cryopreservation is public knowledge; Ted’s eldest offspring’s unsuccessful attempts to have his remains removed from the lab, due to a conflict between his will and a note made on his sickbed, turned into an epic, slightly macabre, media saga.
Muhammad Ali, Peter Sellers and Michael Jackson are all believed to have toyed with the idea, while rumours that Walt Disney is in suspension have proved untrue: it turns out he was cremated (perhaps a good thing, as Disney purists may feel that Wreck-It Ralph would have him turning in his thermal cylinder).
Hollywood, inevitably, has stuck its oar in – studiously in AI: Artificial Intelligence, irreverently in Austin Powers and Woody Allen’s Sleeper and bleakly in Return of The Jedi, in which Han Solo serves a shivery sentence as Jabba the Hut’s favourite ornament.
Cryonics may be about to enter a new era of prominence in which it is taken more seriously.
Stephen Valentine, an architect from Boston whose work includes the Holocaust Museum in New York and the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, has been working on a project named Timeship for the past 20 years.
Timeship is a six-acre facility in a secret location in the southern US that will host laboratories, biological materials and many thousands of what he hopes will be only temporarily dead humans. If all goes according to plan, building work will commence within five or six years.
So, the million-dollar question: what are the chances of revival in the future?
No one’s claiming that human reanimation is within our grasp yet, although The Cryonics Institute claims that insects, vinegar eels and human brain tissue (not to mention human embryos, as shown by the growing success of IVF treatment) have been stored at liquid nitrogen temperature, at which point all decay ceases, and then revived fully.
“No one’s saying, ‘Hey, we cryopreserved a dog and brought it back,’” says Stephen. “The breakthroughs come at a slow, slow pace, but the advantage with being cryopreserved is that you have time. If they can work it out in 100 or 200 years, you’re not going anywhere. You’re on ice for a while…”
The early part of the procedure is now certainly feasible, thanks to a process called vitrification. Before, one of the main stumbling blocks to freezing bodies was the damage caused to tissue by ice crystals (think about how inferior a steak that’s been in the freezer tastes: that’s because of molecular damage caused by crystallisation).
With vitrification, a substance not unlike antifreeze is pumped into the body, making the flesh enter a glass-like state once the temperature has plummeted to the point where all chemistry stops.
Meanwhile, the post-revival procedures cryonics boffins are working on are a little more sophisticated. One prime area of research is nanotechnology, which scientists believe might one day be used to repair molecular damage to cells, and for stem cell research, which has the potential to regenerate body tissue from a person’s DNA.
The mapping of the human genome was probably the most recent huge milestone on the road to the cryonicist’s dream becoming a reality; the encoding and decoding of human memory may well be the next.
Not surprisingly, Stephen is optimistic. “Many scientists are saying that this is going to be considered the century of immortality,” he says. “My aunt just died at the age of 104. She was in bad shape. She was being fed by a syringe. There was nothing left of her – totally wasted.
“My point is, do you want to come back with that same body? Of course not. But through nanomedicine, we’ll be able to reconstruct the body. They’ll just be able to clone a body in the future. They’ll make you a better body. You’ll be able to tell them you want more or less of something next time.”
Irritated that doubters still see life extension as a crackpot notion, Stephen points out that every major scientific breakthrough in history was once deemed unthinkable.
“When Christiaan Barnard did the first heart transplant in 1967 in South Africa, they thought the guy was an unethical monster,” he says. “Today, thousands of heart transplants take place every year and – rightly – no one questions the moral or ethical issues of it.”
The international cryonics community certainly has no shortage of widely celebrated scientists on its side. Marvin Minsky, the pioneer of artificial intelligence, is a supporter; Ray Kurzweil, the author and inventor, has signed up with for preservation with Alcor; molecular nanotechnologist K Eric Drexler is an advocate; as are prominent stem-cell researcher Michael West and Aubrey de Grey, a prominent gerontologist (the scientific study of ageing).
Valentine believes that the involvement of such illustrious personnel is proof that the media and the public have been treating the issue with hostile incredulity – just as people did Galileo’s claims of a spherical planet 450 years ago, he points out – for far too long.
And what about issues of overpopulation? “Overpopulation is only a problem if you’re in India or China. And any issues with it come down to the distribution and the organisation of our resources – something I think we’re getting smarter at,” says Stephen. “We’re never going to run out of space, we’re not going to run out of energy, we’re not going to run out of food – it’s going to all be resolved by the end of the century.”
His assessment is somewhat at odds with the consensus among the global scientific community, but Valentine is almost juggernaut-forceful when it comes to his faith in human progress.
Meanwhile, he insists that life-preservation is not just for the elite few. “This is no exclusive club,” he says. “It’s affordable to anybody, because it can be paid for through life insurance. Most people around the world can do it if they want.”
If you’re interested in taking the icy plunge, Alcor quotes $215,000 (Dh790,000) for whole body cryopreservation and $105,000 for neurocryopreservation – which means only the head is preserved. Those who have signed up are advised to keep instructions for how medics should treat their remains when they die.
Aside from the logistical realities, what of the potential trauma of being transported away from one’s era, one’s social and cultural environment, and waking up decades or even centuries after the world one knew has passed?
“Human history is littered with people stranded in strange places and making it through it all,” says Stephen. “People came to America, a completely different world, with almost nothing in their pockets and no skills, but still made a world of their own.”
And having no friends or family, bar those who lived in a bygone era? “If you had a choice right now, of losing all your friends but getting to live another hundred years, or getting to live another ten years but with all your friends, which choice would you take?”
There are endless other objections and considerations, of course. Inevitably, many sceptics suspect there is some kind of scam involved. “No one makes money out of this,” Stephen’s responds. “You’re not talking about a bunch of salesmen selling you a shady deal, you’re talking about very dedicated, committed, thoughtful, virtuous people.”
In fairness to Stephen, he makes no promises about the prospect of immortality. Essentially, for him, it’s a gamble that you may not win but cannot lose.