Is cryonics an ambulance into the future or the latest twist on our ancient fantasy of rebirth?
Boulder, Colorado, 1989: the young Norwegian’s phone rang. On the line was his mother in Oslo, where it was already evening; dark with a November chill. She needed to tell him that his beloved grandfather had gone to take a short nap. But he had not woken up: he had had another heart attack in his sleep. He was dead.
The grandfather, Bredo Morstřl, had been a vital, vigorous man, a nature-lover who skied and painted well into old age. He had taken his grandson, Trygve Bauge, with him as soon as the boy was old enough, spending the summers fishing and hiking in the mountains, staying in the high-country cabin that Morstřl had built with his own hands. Not even an earlier heart attack had stopped this active, outdoor life. From his grandfather, Bauge had learnt independence and resilience. Neither man was inclined to give in to ill fortune. Now Morstřl himself could no longer fight back against the assaults of fate, but his grandson could.
The young man persuaded his distraught mother that burial or cremation would be premature, acts of resignation. Bauge had not given up hope of saving his grandfather, even though he was many thousands of miles away. As a child he had read about the idea of suspended animation in a popular science book he had found in his grandfather’s library. Ever since, he had been fascinated by the idea that the terminally ill or even the newly dead could be preserved at super-low temperatures. Then they could simply wait until the day came when technology was advanced enough to repair a failed heart, or even reverse the ravages of ageing itself. What was death, anyway? So Bauge gave his mother detailed instructions to deep-freeze grandpa Morstřl. Then they just had to get him to America.
The procedure for preserving whole human bodies by freezing is known as cryonics. Many believe it is an idea whose time has come. Their logic is simple. There are many diseases that cannot be cured by contemporary medicine, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, so we cannot currently hope to delay death indefinitely. Yet scientific progress is rapid and even appears to be accelerating, to the extent that we might reasonably hope such diseases will find cures in the future. To have a shot at immortality, all we must do is reach that future.
Like most visionaries, his ambition inhabits a middle space between the prophetic and the pathological
For those who simply cannot stay alive long enough, freezing (more formally, ‘cryopreservation’) is a well-established way of delaying degeneration and keeping bodies fresh. Doing this to recently deceased humans — cryonics — is therefore an ambulance into the future, a way of transporting the terminally ill to a time and place where they might be healed. To those who are unconvinced that disease, old age and the damage done by freezing will ever be entirely curable, cryonicists such as Bauge say this: the odds of you rising again from the freezer might not be high, but they are surely better than the odds of you rising again from a small urn full of ashes.
The logic of cryonics is therefore a little like Pascal’s Wager. The 17th-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued that we don’t know whether God exists but, if He does, a pious life can earn you infinite reward in heaven in return for a relatively small investment in this world. Similarly, cryonicists admit that we can’t know for sure that medical science will become as all-powerful as they hope, but a relatively small financial investment in cryonics will at least buy you a shot at immortality, whereas spending your spare money on a nicer car or a bigger house promises only certain death.
Bauge did not know for sure that he could save his grandfather, but he thought he had a chance. In 1989 the only cryonics facilities were in the US. So he arranged for his grandfather to be flown across the Atlantic, in a steel casket packed with dry ice. Here he was transferred to one of the early cryonics companies, Trans Time in the San Francisco Bay Area, and immersed in liquid nitrogen at -196°C (-320°F), a temperature at which the natural processes of decay and putrefaction come to a halt. Bauge considered this a mere stopover; he had grander plans for rescuing his grandpa.
The young Norwegian’s dream was to found his own cryonics facility, one that could survive whatever perils the future might hold. No one could say how long it would be before the technology would be invented that could repair and reanimate his grandpa, so Bauge had to ensure he was safe until the time came. Having explored many options, he settled for Colorado and the Rocky Mountains, mostly because their inland location would permit a generous 30-minute warning if a nuclear attack was launched from submarines off either of America’s coastlines — he had no idea that the Cold War was coming to an end just as he was finalising his plans. He bought a plot of land above the little town of Nederland, a few miles southwest of — and 3,000ft above — the city of Boulder, with spectacular views and a climate not unlike his native Norway. There he started building.
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