Today, they preserve not just your head, but your whole body, in the hope that years from now — with advances in medicine and technology — they will be able to reanimate your corpse and give you back your life.
This is the science of cryonics, as described by Simon Hattenstone. Only it is more a hope and a science. Or, as some would think, an emerging science that has only been embraced by a few prophetic ‘early adopters’.
In a bungalow in Peacehaven, by the east Sussex seaside, a 72-year-old man and his 62-year-old wife are planning their future. There’s no discussion of anything morbid, like death, because, as far as they are concerned there is no such thing as death. When they stop breathing, they will pass into a state of suspended animation. They will be frozen in a giant flask of liquid nitrogen at almost -200C, which will preserve their brains and organs in as fresh a state as possible until technology has advanced to the stage where they can be revived.
Many cryonicists choose to have only their heads frozen – because that contains all the vital matter – and by the time people can be brought back to life it will be easier, and preferable for some, to attach a new body. But Alan and Sylvia Sinclair will have their whole bodies frozen.
Alan now runs Cryonics UK, and every month he holds meetings with fellow cryonicists and potential converts to discuss the practicalities and potential problems of their suspension – of which there are many. First, upon so-called “death”, a team of experts must rush to their sides, pump out their blood and fill them with antifreeze. This is complicated because virtually all the members of Alan’s suspension team at Cryonics UK have practised only on dummies, rather than real people – and if, for example, air bubbles enter the pumping system, the brain will be irreversibly damaged. Second, there are no storage facilities in Britain, so patients will have to be transferred to the US or Russia. Third, science has some way to go before we can bring people back to life.
When you see this in a science fiction film, with the mood music and the beautiful actors, you think ‘why not?’ But the thought of my body stored in a warehouse in Arizona for 50 years sends shivers down my spine. Perhaps this unease is irrational, like the fear of being trapped in a buried coffin.
The idea behind the science is not new:
It was Benjamin Franklin who first suggested, in 1773, that it might be possible to preserve human life in a suspended state for centuries. And that was that for close on 200 years, until physics lecturer Robert Ettinger published The Prospect Of Immortality in 1962, in which he argued that, since we keep food fresh by freezing it, we can do the same with the human body until such time as we have discovered how to defeat death.
The term “cryonics”, derived from the Greek kryos, meaning cold, was coined in 1965 when Karl Werner founded the Cryonics Society of New York, and the premise is that memory, personality and identity are stored in cellular structures, principally in the brain. So, if you can preserve the brain in decent nick, technology permitting, you can eventually restore people with their personalities intact. The cost varies from $28,000 for head-only preservation to $155,000 for full body.
The largest cryonics organisation, with more than 800 members waiting to be preserved, is the US company Alcor. It was established in 1972 and has frozen 87 patients. The Cryonics Institute, also American, and founded by Ettinger in 1976, has frozen 95. The two groups are rivals. When men walked on the moon at the end of the 60s, eternity did not seem such a huge leap for mankind. But progress has not quite kept up with our dreams.
I find it all rather freakish, even gruesome. But it raises lots of questions: About life and death and the borderline between the two. About personal identity and consciousness and the soul. About our deepest fears and hopes. Why is it perfectly acceptable to seek another decade in life through exercise, healthy eating, or medical interventions, but decidedly weird to seek another century or two through cryonics?
If the science were proven, and the technology reliable, and the contractors trustworthy — wouldn’t you do it? And if not, why not?