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Scientific American

Nano Nonsense & Cryonics

published September 2001 | comments (17)
True believers seek redemption from the sin of death
magazine cover

Cryonicists believe that people can be frozen immediately after death and reanimated later when the cure for what ailed them is found. To see the flaw in this system, thaw out a can of frozen strawberries. During freezing, the water within each cell expands, crystallizes, and ruptures the cell membranes. When defrosted, all the intracellular goo oozes out, turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.

Cryonicists recognize this detriment and turn to nanotechnology for a solution. Microscopic machines will be injected into the defrosting “patient” to repair the body molecule by molecule until the trillions of cells are restored and the person can be resuscitated. Every religion needs its gods, and this scientistic vision has a trinity in Robert C. W. (The Prospect of Immortality), K. Eric Drexler (Engines of Creation) and Ralph C. Merkle (The Molecular Repair of the Brain), who preach that nanocryonics will wash away the sin of death. These works are built on the premise that if you are cremated or buried, you have zero probability of being resurrected — cryonics is better than everlasting nothingness.

Is it? That depends on how much time, effort and money ($120,000 for a full-body freeze or $50,000 for just the head) you are willing to invest for odds of success only slightly higher than zero. It takes a blindly optimistic faith in the illimitable power of science to solve any and all problems, including death. Look how far we’ve come in just a century, believers argue — from the Wright brothers to Neil Armstrong in only 66 years. Extrapolate these trends out 1,000 years, or 10,000, and immortality is virtually certain.

I want to believe the cryonicists. Really I do. I gave up on religion in college, but I often slip back into my former evangelical fervor, now directed toward the wonders of science and nature. But this is precisely why I’m skeptical. It is too much like religion: it promises everything, delivers nothing (but hope) and is based almost entirely on faith in the future. And if Ettinger, Drexler and Merkle are the trinity of this scientistic sect, then F. M. Esfandiary is its Saul. Esfandiary, on the road to his personal Damascus, changed his name to FM-2030 (the number signifying his 100th birthday and the year nanotechnology is predicted to make cryonics successful) and declared, “I have no age. Am born and reborn every day. I intend to live forever. Barring an accident I probably will.”

Esfandiary forgot about cancer, a pancreatic form of which killed him on July 8, 2000. FM-2030 — or more precisely, his head — now resides in a vat of liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, but his legacy lives on among his fellow “transhumanists” (they have moved beyond human) and “extropians” (they are against entropy).

This is what I call “borderlands science,” because it dwells in that fuzzy region of claims that have yet to pass any tests but have some basis, however remote, in reality. It is not impossible for cryonics to succeed; it is just exceptionally unlikely. The rub in exploring the borderlands is finding that balance between being open-minded enough to accept radical new ideas but not so open-minded that your brains fall out. My credulity module is glad that some scientists are devoting themselves to the problem of mortality. My skepticism module, however, recognizes that transhumanistic-extropian cryonics is uncomfortably close to religion. I worry, as Matthew Arnold did in his 1852 poem “Hymn of Empedocles,” that we will

Feign a bliss
Of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this
Lose all our present state,
And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose.

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17 Comments to “Nano Nonsense & Cryonics”

  1. Shakirra Meghjkee Says:

    I probably agree, and I think you’re probably signed up, anyway. I probably will sign up too, because death is irrational and any bit away from 0% is exponentially further from the absoluteness of death.

  2. Ben Best Says:

    Michael Shermer’s criticism of cryonics purports to be
    scientific, but it is based on ignorance of not only the
    science used in cryonics, but of basic science.

    Strawberries (and mammalian tissues) are not turned to
    mush by freezing because water expands and crystallizes
    inside the cells. Water crystallizes in the extracellular
    space because more nucleators are found extracellularly.
    As water crystallizes in the extracellular space, the
    extracellular salt concentration increases causing cells
    to lose water osmotically and shrink. Ultimately the cell
    membranes are broken by crushing from extracellular ice
    and/or high extracellular salt concentration.

    The fact that Shermer does not know *why* freezing
    strawberries turns them to mush is both an indicator of
    his scientific ignorance and of his willingness to
    pompously pose as an oracle of scientific authority
    on the basis of his intuition rather than science.

    Shermer has also unscientifically chosen to
    criticize cryonics without first informing himself on
    the subject — comparable to his ignorant speculation
    about why freezing turns strawberries to mush. Cryonics
    organizations use vitrification perfusion before
    cooling to cryogenic temperatures. With good brain
    perfusion, vitrification can reduce ice formation to
    negligible amounts.

    The careful reader will notice that Shermer does not
    present anything other than the ill-conceived strawberry
    argument as a scientific reason why cryonics cannot
    work. All of the rest of what Shermer says is nonscientific,
    and involves a considerable amount of name-calling:
    “blindly optimistic faith”, “promises everything but
    delivers nothing”, and “exceptionally unlikely” to work.
    These are not arguments, they are unsupported assertions.
    A scientist would recognize that.

    In the space provided for “website” in the comments
    form I have provided a link to the cryonics section of
    my website. Those really interested in investigating
    the science and technology behind cryonics should
    look there.

  3. Ben Best Says:

    The link to the cryonics section of my website did
    not get posted. It is:

    http://www.benbest.com/cryonics/cryonics.html

  4. Sknir Notyad Says:

    Excellent post Ben. You are absolutely correct that Shermer’s criticism is both unscientific and ignorant. I am in no way the greatest proponent of cryonics (though in theory, reanimation may one day be possible), but I can certainly recognize that this article is filled with bogus assertions.

  5. Shannon Vyff Says:

    I’d like to just add that many who are signed up for cryonics do not “believe” that it will work. Quite the opposite, they feel it won’t matter to them either way as they’ll be dead, just a benefit if some sort of re-animation occurs, through bio-tech or nano-tech. Here is a link to a petition I started as I feel people have the right to choose cryonics as an end of life option, just as much as they have the right to choose cremation or burial. http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/preserve-the-right-of-those-who-are-dying-to-choose-cryonics
    By the way, I love Michael Shermer’s work and often use his talks or writings in my Unitarian Universalist Children’s Religious Education classes :-).

  6. Michael Says:

    I’m afraid Ben’s post comes off more as “nuh-uh” tactics than a compelling counterargument. His main objection is that Shermer uses an analogy to make a point. Imperfect but stimulating analogies have been trademarks of scientific communication (like most literary forms to actual communicate with a broad audience) from before the Greek and up until today. Worse, Ben isn’t even saying the core comparison of the analogy is wrong, just that the coded statement behind the analogy–ignoring the analogy’s true or false value–is explained imprecisely. Thus Ben’s argument becomes, “it doesn’t matter if you’re right because your proof lacks specificity.” I think for many, many people, actually being right likely matters more.

    Shermer’s points about the limitations and the psychology of the cryonics movement go completely unaddressed. Really, outbursts like this seem to push his points because they wholly ignore the actual criticism. That, indeed, is a rhetorical choice that can be easily associated with apologists and ideologues.

  7. Shannon Vyff Says:

    The Michael above, is my husband Michael Trice :-). I like what Michael Shermer had to say in his book “Why People Believe Weird Things” about cryonics, his piece in it on Immortality was positive in that it could happen someday. He is right that many take it too seriously, almost religious-like, but also many just live their lives enjoying their families and support extreme life extension “just in case” or are signed up for cryonics, as our family is–for that very small and mostly unlikely chance that it might work. Shermer is correct to say Cryonics’ biggest challenge is that it is not yet proven. That being said there is evidence that it might someday work (if society keeps advancing, the cryonics companies stay in business, etc.) the evidence is based on studies of mammalian brain preservation at cryogenic temperatures. http://www.alcor.org/Library/html/caseforcryonics.html Beyond that, there need to be a lot of advances in science to be able to re-animate a cryonicaly preserved person (or head), advances in nano-tech, bio-tech, or artificial general intelligence. Supporting Cryonics now though by being a member does help the research of how to better preserve and transport donor organs needed to help save lives now.

    I support the view that cryonics should be an end of life option–to me it doesn’t matter either way, it will either work or not and I get to donate my body to science either way ;-) http://www.thepetitionsite.com/2/preserve-the-right-of-those-who-are-dying-to-choose-cryonics

  8. Mike Says:

    Shannon,

    Ben Best actually refutes very well Michael Shermer’s rather unscientific derision of cryonics and if “your Michael” is so unsupportive – I am not sure if I were you I would be linking the two of you. Especially if you are in favor of the right of those to choose Cryonics.
    With frienes like these!

  9. Mike Anzis Says:

    I am a great fan and admirer of Michael Shermer and will continue to be. I have also been signed-up as a cryonicist since 1985, and on reading this post by him, I am very disappointed. Not only has Michael taken an uninformed and cavalier approach in his criticism, as noted by Ben Best, but he sets up straw men for easy (though entertaining)ridicule.

    Few if any cronicisits believe that “immortality is virtually certain”, and no cryonics organization promises any particular result (much less “everything”). The hallmarks of religion (dogma, moral code, tradition, etc.) are simply not part of cryonics, and, with few exceptions, cryonicist simply sign-up and go on with their lives, rather than losing “all our present state, And relegate to worlds yet distant our repose”.

    Cryonicists do, indeed, look at astonishing scientific and technological progress such as the Wright brothers to Neil Armstrong, antibiotics, artificial hearts, the Internet, gene therapy, etc., with encouragement. A bigger problem with Michael’s commentary is that it fails to address at least two larger issues with which cryonicits must deal: (1) In current and future social and political environments, can cryonics organizations get it’s “patients” from now to then (i.e., maintain them is suspended state until “reanimation” is practical)? And (2) will one want to “live” in an unknown future world that could be anything from utopia to one in which you could be a slave, a scientific freak show, or a disembodied brain used for some unknown purpose, etc.

    These are the issues about which I would like to see the kind of thoughtful, non-prejudicial discussion of which Michael Shermer is usually a part. For to quote Carl Sagan, one of Michael’s (and my) heroes, “Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were. But without it we go nowhere.”

  10. Frank Erdman Says:

    I agree with all the reservations about cyronics herein stated, and would like to add a further, more fundamental perhaps, reservation. It seems to me, for cyronics to work at all, even in principle, that our personalities, our continuity, whatever you want to call it, must be preserved structurally in the brain, and not be a function of the brain’s electrical (computational) activity. As a software programmer, it feels more intuitively correct to me to say that our “persistence” is something rather like a “while true” loop in a software program, that is, we exist in RAM, not in our hard drives. We in terms of our continuity are like the activity of a program in its main() loop, and when that exits, so do we. I can’t prove this, but it just seems more correct to my gut. Some will say, well, what about people revived when their EEG’s were flat lined? I would say, EEG’s are course-grained, and do not pick up all electrical activity that is going on. Probably at least some of that neuron-to-neuron activity keeps going well after clinical death, perhaps up to 30 minutes or so, who knows. But after that, I think that is probably all the fat lady sings. So, even if we do have all kinds of cool nanotechnology in the future, that does not mean we can restore our selves, anymore than after I reboot my computer can I have same program instance running I had before I did the reboot. Just a thought.

  11. Steven Brown Says:

    To me it’s simple. Suppose there’s a one in a billion, or whatever finite number you want, chance of cryonics working. Well, if you die normally, you’re buried, burned, or whatever, and there’s zero chance of being repaired, resurrected, or whatever term you want to use. What’s the ratio here? Given a finite chance, however small, it’s 1 to infinity. That seems good odds to me; some chance, however small and seemingly ridiculous, is better than none.

  12. Dennis K Says:

    To frank Erdman. I see some flaws in your computer analogy. In fact, the analogy does more to support the idea of cryonics then to disprove it. For instance, You can reboot your computer and restart it and have the same program running. As for Ram, I think it represents consciousness and/or short term memory. Both can be swithched off in a computer or in a person with no damage to the core hard drive. The mind or long term memory of a person is also left intact when consciousness is switched off say under general anestesia. Physics clearly supports cryonics and that is why Shermer who I otherwise respect can only make personal or emotional judgments. The proper skeptic and/or scientist would say cryonics may be technically feasible but we will not know until the results are in. The problem being is that the results could take 100+ years and would by defacto be too late to benefit any die hard skeptic demanding absolute proof. Again, this doesnt mean cryonics doesn’t work, it may but we shall have to wait and see.

  13. Alex Erler Says:

    I’m afraid the anonymous Michael (not Shermer) is somewhat confused: Ben Best is clearly saying that “the core comparison of (Shermer’s) analogy is wrong”, since he is essentially saying that contemporary cryonics procedures are not at all the same as what happens when Shermer freezes his strawberries and then thaws them out, in an attempt to demonstrate the unfeasibility of cryonics. As Ben says, contemporary procedures notably involve the injection of cryoprotectants to minimize freezing damage. Ben’s objection is not simply that “Shermer uses an analogy to make a point”.

    As for Shermer, while I very much respect his commitment to debunking pseudo-science and promoting critical, rational thinking, I can’t help but being very disappointed by this post, for reasons already mentioned above by insightful commentators: Shermer is basically criticizing, on the basis of mere hunches, an enterprise he knows very little about, and which seems to hold great promise for mankind. Skepticism is certainly a healthy attitude, but it should not go so far as to become indiscriminate.

    Oh, and the argument that cryopreservation is impossibly expensive doesn’t hold water either: most people could in principle afford the costs via life insurance.

  14. Jack F. Says:

    It makes me a little sick in my throat to fight smug with smug but I can’t stand it… I’m a 40 year old man with only a high school education (and that just barely) but I know about migration of solutes in freezing water, and why a cell would dehydrate during freezing. Even if I didn’t, I could not imagine that pokey-ice-crystals would be tearing up things on a nano-scale, using the logic -because ice is sharp-.

    Also, is the structural integrity of a strawberry maintained by cell membranes? Not cell walls then. OK. That’s fine.

    And, who has a CAN of strawberries anyway, and why would would you FREEZE such a thing?

    Since when was Scientific American published from the Twilight Zone?

    I’m hate to be a total (disagreeable person) about it, but this is exactly why debunkers should never be tolerated. Yeah, it’s good to be skeptical, and it’s good to separate areas of rigorous scientific study, like particle-acceleration and low-temperature metabolism, from areas of farcical entertainment, like UFOlogy and Libertarianism. But you should be able to do it without sounding like a pretentious (irritating or obnoxious person) all the time.

  15. Taurus Londono Says:

    Michael (Trice) wrote…
    “(Ben Best’s) main objection is that Shermer uses an analogy to make a point. Imperfect but stimulating analogies have been trademarks of scientific communication”

    Ben Best’s objection is not that Shermer uses an analogy (nothing wrong with analogies), it’s that Shermer’s analogy is itself not scientifically accurate.

    - Strawberries do *not* incur freezing damage the way he implied.
    - Since his analogy is not in any way, shape, or form an accurate reflection of reality, his comment “this is your brain on cryonics” is baseless.
    - Besides, what happens to “your brain on cryonics” is subject to empirical investigation; the existing body of research on animal brains is a better way to address that question than a stupid analogy.

    Shermer might as well have said “Cryonics doesn’t work because…when was the last time you beat your wife?”

    More to the point, Shermer (who’s usually a sharp skeptic) would be equally wrong to use a similar analogy to show that, say, UFOs are not alien spaceships. ie… “UFOs don’t exist because the moon is made of cheese.”

    The moon isn’t made of cheese.
    The material constituents of the moon have nothing whatsoever to do with the question of whether or not UFOs exist.

    In other words, to use an analogy, reading Shermer’s post was like hearing him fart.

  16. Ralph C. Merkle Says:

    Alcor responded to this grossly inaccurate story several years ago (see the link below).

  17. Ralph C. Merkle Says:

    Alcor’s response: http://www.alcor.org/press2001SciAm.html

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