Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Cold as Ice

The seduction of Ellsworth Stevens made a temporary stir in certain lofty circles, shocking all but the most cynical.

A brilliant bio-chemist, a few months previously Stevens had reported some attempts at suspending animation in mammals by a method involving preliminary partial dehydration of the living tissue through starvation, followed by freezing.

The technique exploited the newly-discovered tendency of very minute quantities of radioactive phosphorus in certain phospholipids to counteract the degenerative anti-gelation effect of low temperatures on the colloidal phases of protoplasm.

He had not succeeded in reviving any of the animals, since none of the nerve tissue had lived through the freezing, but results had been nonetheless promising. Now Stevens was employed by the Cancer Institute, consecrated to this most important work.

Until one evening a Tempter called at his modest home. His name, of course, was Jones.

"Dr. Stevens," said Garry, "I want you to quit your job and go back to work on suspended animation."

~ "The Penultimate Trump" by Robert Ettinger, 1948
Imagine you are dying of cancer or Parkinson's disease or simply old age. Imagine having your body and brain preserved until a cure was developed. Imagine then being reawakened in complete health.

That was the promise of Robert Ettinger's 1948 short story "The Penultimate Trump". The premise of frozen sleep became fodder for many a "man out of time" science fiction story, from Frederik Pohl's The Age of the Pussyfoot, to Woody Allen's Sleeper, to Bev Katz Rosenbaum's recent young adult novel I Was a Teenage Popsicle. And cold sleep has become a standard science fictional method for humans to endure long journeys between the stars.

But it isn't only science fiction. Ettinger published a non-fiction book on cryopreservation, The Prospect of Immortality, in 1962. And it wasn't long after that advocates of cryonics began selling such services. That was despite the fact that they had no idea whether their preservation techniques would adequately preserve frozen human tissue or when (and if) the technology would be developed for successful revival.

And some people were frozen long before a storage facility existed. That's part of the story of Bob Nelson, TV repairman, cryonics enthusiast and president of the Cryonics Society of California. In January of 1967, Nelson helped freeze the body of psychology professor James Bedford - the very first human intentially frozen in anticipation of later revival. Bedford's frozen body was transferred from Nelson's care after a week. That was fortunate for Bedford, because he is the only one of Nelson's "patients" who are still frozen today. It's not clear if Nelson was deluded or a charletain, but the fact is that he talked as if he had a cryonics system in place, when he did not:
Although he had made virtually no progress toward establishing a cryonics facility, early in 1969 Nelson gave an interview to Cryonics Reports magazine describing it as if it already existed. He claimed that individual cryopatients were stored in pods "very similar to the units that were used in 2001: A Space Odyssey," and the pods were immersed in giant containers 14 feet in diameter, each capable of holding 15 to 20 people. "Units are moved by a series of stainless steel cables that guide them into position, and they can be introduced and retrieved at will," he told the magazine. None of these statements was true. Nelson subsequently circulated photographs of himself standing beside a tank with "Cryonic Interment" lettered on the side, but its location remains unknown, and since it was intended only for bulk storage of liquid nitrogen, it would have been unsuitable for maintaining cryonics patients accessibly.
The other bodies in Nelson's care weren't maintained in a frozen state, and their decomposing bodies were eventually revealed in 1979. You can hear Nelson's story on a recently-posted episode of This American Life (or read about it here). Not surprisingly, the ensuing scandal resulted in regulation of the industry.

People who choose to be preserved shortly after death have real faith in the development of technology that will revive them. Alcor, one of the companies offering cryonic preservation today, acknowledges that revival technology "may become a reality a century or more in the future." And when and if revival technology does become available there's no guarantee that the preservation process used today will have adequately preserved their bodies. It's a leap of faith, or perhaps a real fear of death, that they will return to life.

Image: "Steel & aluminum cryo-capsule containing mylar-wrapped body, designed by wigmaker Edward Hope to store frozen body of James Bedford, re experimental cryonics", published in Life magazine in 1967.

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