Cryonics Redux: Is Vitrification a Viable Alternative to Immortality as a Popsicle?
Miller, Kevin, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
ITS THE STUFF OF SCIENCE FICTION and pseudoscientific web sites. The idea of freezing people and then thawing them out decades, if not centuries, later sounds like something out of an episode of Star Trek. But ks there anything to the extraordinary idea that, in years to come, we can be revived?
According to Cryobiologist Dr. Kenneth Storey, when discussing cryonics, the line between religion and science becomes blurred and rational thought processes sometimes go out the window. Cryonics is "more or less a theology," Storey says, "there is really no difference between cryonics and any other religious organization. They have the truth with no proof; you must have faith but you can never see a real example of it; you must do what they say without any hesitation (give large amounts of money to them every so often); and they have the key to eternal life."
It's not just the religious aspects of cryonics that Storey takes issue with. One of his problems with cryonics is that he says it's based on a flawed key principle--a process called vitrification. Critics have long charged that freezing destroys cells because when crystals form they shatter cell walls beyond repair. Vitrification is claimed by cyronicists to be a solution to this problem. According to the Alcor Life Extension Facility, the largest cryonics company in the world, "the [vitrification] procedure involves partly replacing water in cells with a mixture of chemicals that prevent ice formation. This is a method of stabilizing the physical basts of the human mind for practically unlimited periods of time."
Storey agrees that, theoretically anyway, vitrification will hold the cells as if frozen in time. In this process, the temperature of the water (or mixture of chemicals, as in Alcor's procedure) is reduced so fast that ice doesn't have time to form. Storey says the cells must cool "at [at least] 1,000 degrees a minute," or as he describes it somewhat less scientifically, "really, really, really fast." The rapid temperature reduction causes the water to become a glass, rather than ice.
It's a bit complicated, but there are easier ways to picture it. Imagine people on a street as water molecules. When the water is free flowing, the people are moving with ease. If time were to stop instantly, everyone would suddenly stop moving in exactly the place they were. However, if time were to slow down gradually, people would have time to gather and talk about what was happening. The same is tree of water molecules in vitrification--the molecules have their temperature reduced so fast that they don't have time to gather and form ice, and since ice is what damages cells in the fast place, they will remain frozen in time permanently.
Alcor's vitrification claim, according to Storey, is in fact, accurate, "Absolutely true, there's no question, if you want to be frozen ... and come back as one brain cell, well, it's your money. But the thing is it works for one cell, and it looks marvelous, but it doesn't work for the whole brain."
The freezing process is a valid scientific principle, and in fact, Storey regularly vitrifies individual cells, and small groups of cells in his lab at Carleton University in Ottawa. The thawing process, however, is entirely speculative and is based on unknown, and yet-to-be invented technology.
Storey says the problem is that Alcor's procedures don't talk about the thawing process. He does. "At those sorts of warming temperatures that naturally occur, water will go from that vitrified, or glass state, and then them will be this horrible reckoning at which time the glass will turn into ice, destroying the cells."
Storey has two main problems with Alcor and other cryonics organizations. First, he says they only focus on the freezing, and don't talk about the problems that will occur in thawing the bodies. "You've got to think of freezing an organ as a cycle, out of the first beast, frozen, thawed, active, correct and into the second beast."
The second problem he sees with these companies is that they put far too much faith in vitrification as a saviour. "Vitrification, although an interesting phenomenon in the lab, is simply not going to transfer itself to organs in the real world. It will never work for organs, and it will certainly never work for human bodies."
So, in the face of all the evidence that this won't work, how do cryonics supporters defend their ideas?
George Dworsky is the president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association, a group devoted to "improving the human condition through the use of ... available technologies to eliminate aging." Transhumanists are typical of cryonics supporters. They make the general argument that if you told someone a century ago that men would walk on the moon and talk to each other on wireless phones while driving 65 miles per hour on an eight-lane highway, you would have been ridiculed. They believe they are being treated the same way.
Dworsky admits that there isn't any real evidence right now. "I can't sit here today and look you in the eye and tell you we are going to bring people back. Anyone who is going to tell you that is either deluding themselves, or they're not being realistic. But I think there are enough clues now to give us some hope." He also admits that the thawing process will need "a radically futuristic technology [that] could resuscitate or revitalize the person."
Cryonics supporters like Dworsky and Alcor put their faith in the ability of science to conceive and create things that are seemingly inconceivable. This lack of real science, and the propensity toward speculation in cryonics, is what has caused it to develop the quasi-religious fervor Storey has seen among its followers.
Storey prefers to deal with science that is applicable today. He is currently studying the way mammals hibernate, in order to prolong the shelf life of organs being used for transplants. "We don't want to have to take a heart and realize it'll only live for four hours and have to run it through an airport in a picnic basket full of ice."
Already, the results from this type of research are being felt. "Figuring out how to lengthen the time of transplantable organs happens, literally, on a month by month basis ... the survival times of organs have grown from one hour to four hours, four hours to eight hours; in terms of kidneys, maybe eight hours to 18 hours, but the growth is incremental. Science at this stage does not work by huge breakthroughs."
Storey does concede that cryonics--defined as the freezing and reviving of an animal--could happen, but is quick to strike down the idea of human cryonics, saying "tragically for cryonics, those animals are only frogs and turtles." Frogs and turtles survive the winter by allowing themselves to freeze solid and thaw in the spring.
Storey's distaste for cryonics isn't limited to the fact that they have no real science. In the end, he says, the fundamental problem with cryonics is that "they [claim] they will somehow over-turn the laws of physics, chemistry, and molecular science because they have the way. There is no difference between somebody dressing up in a long robe who promises to take you to a planet far away if you buy some new Nike sneakers, and cryonics which promises you, in the lace of overwhelming evidence, that they will overcome, literally, objective reality ... it's not science, it's a religion, we can't really fight it on the basis of science because they don't have any."
At this time, cryonics is impossible, even the supporters admit that. And experts like Storey say it will never be possible. But who knows, maybe future generations will be watching a freshly thawed Ted Williams back in left field for the Boston Red Sox?
As Storey sums it up: "In a hundred years or so, we'll know which approach was valuable. The advantage there is that if they were right, they'll all be alive and thawed out, and I'll be well and truly dead, so I won't care then either."…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Cryonics Redux: Is Vitrification a Viable Alternative to Immortality as a Popsicle?. Contributors: Miller, Kevin - Author. Magazine title: Skeptic (Altadena, CA). Volume: 11. Issue: 1 Publication date: Spring 2004. Page number: 24+. © 2009 Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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