Cryonics Redux: Is Vitrification a Viable Alternative to Immortality as a Popsicle?

By Miller, Kevin | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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