Cryogenic Studies Treading on Thin Ice
The resurgence of Matt Groening’s popular side project Futurama, given the green light for another three series after an eight year hiatus, reminds us all of a science which is rarely given the virtue of credibility it deserves: Cryogenic freezing. Regular readers will know that this topic is almost taboo in the scientific realm.
Whilst Futurama does well to simplify such an incongruous scientific field for the sake of comedy, as has Sylvester Stallone’s action thriller Demolition Man and Mike Myers spy comedy Austin Powers, few people realise that the notion of freezing a human being cryogenically is something that has been extensively looked into since the early 1960’s.
The notion of cryogenics was first conceived in late 1964 by Robert Ettinger, a college physicist after fighting in World War Two for the USA. He wrote a self published book titled, The Prospect of Immortality, outlining the rationale and methods of cryonics. He sent it to over 200 people who featured on a ‘Who’s Who in America’ list at the time in order to get publicity. Isaac Asimov, a highly regarded physicist at the time, gave Ettinger’s book credibility by stating that his theories were feasible and well backed up.
Shortly after Ettinger’s non-fiction book, Evan Cooper founded the world’s first cryogenic society, the Life Extension Society (LES), in 1963 which still runs today. However Cooper himself quit the field in 1970, stating he became jaded by a study which reaped no rewards in terms of advancement.
So why, after 50 years, are we still unsure of the process of cryogenics?
The scientific study of cryonics has been met with much criticism, legal issues, court reforms and bad press since its conception. Robert Nelson established the Cryonics society of California in the mid 60’s in the city of Chatsworth. He took on anyone who was willing to be frozen and kept them hidden in a crypt whilst he sought to pioneer the technology to successfully thaw them alive. He could not maintain the cryopreservation due to poor revenue and so his crypt was uncovered to the public. His patients had to be thawed which led to their deaths. This led to the common phrase in cryogenic circles, ‘The Chatsworth Disaster’. Due to the fact that studies yield no concrete evidence that suggest it can be done, whilst maintaining a financial foothold, the majority of the scientific community dropped studying cryogenics.
It was the Chatsworth disaster that instigated a split in the late 1970’s, as the ‘The Society for Cryobiology’ sought to disassociate cryobiology (study of animals at low temperatures) and cryonics (study of unsustainable humans at low temperatures), condemning any scientist’s efforts to conjoin the two. Mainstream media also played a part in halting the progress of cryonics as scientists began to view the idea as pure fantasy: cue Matt Groening.
Who knows what the future holds for Cryopreservation. At present only five companies in the world openly operate as a cryogenic facility – only one resides outside of the US (Russia). The nature of the field is such that it could be another year before we establish technology to freeze and thaw humans, or it could take another century.
Would you like to be Cryogenically frozen?