Until the day he died, in 2011, Robert Ettinger hoped humanity would figure out a way to cheat death. Today, his body is stored in a cryonic vessel filled with liquid nitrogen and frozen to –196 degrees Celcius. He lies in cryopreservation at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan—which he founded—alongside his late mother, his first and second wives, and more than 150 other deceased.
“We’re classified as a cemetery, but I would like to think of us as being more like a hospital, caring for patients that are metabolically challenged,” says Ben Best, the president and CEO of the Cryonics Institute, in Myles Kane and Josh Koury’s short documentary about the institute, We Will Live Again.
“Robert Ettinger’s history has a familiar ring: a science teacher and middling science-fiction writer with a grand vision for the future,” Kane told me. “But instead of creating Scientology and a legion of believers, he preached faith in the restorative potential of science itself.”
Ettinger, known as the “father of cryonics,” popularized the idea in his 1962 book, The Prospect of Immortality. (Isaac Asimov, the renowned biochemist and science-fiction writer, helped Ettinger publish the book.) Cryonicists believe that technology will sufficiently advance to a point where cells can be rejuvenated and the aging process reversed. In practice, legally deceased patients arrive at a cryonics facility packed in ice. Cryonicists interrupt the dying process by draining the blood from the body and perfusing the corpse with a mixture of antifreeze and organ-preserving chemicals, known as cryoprotective agents. The body is then transformed into a vitrified state and lowered into a below-freezing chamber filled with liquid nitrogen, where it lies in wait for a future generation to restore it.
As of 2014, there were more than 300 cryogenically frozen individuals in the United States, another 50 in Russia, and a few thousand “contracted members” who had signed up to be frozen upon death.
“I’m thinking that in 50 to 100 years, people will start being recovered,” Best says in the film. “People will be rejuvenated to a youthful condition, and any disease they had, cured.”
Kane said that cryonicists don’t pretend to know what form these death-evading technologies will take, “so the current focus is on how to best preserve the body so that future advanced generations can successfully revive them.”
In the film, Ettinger, whom Kane and Koury interviewed before his death, says that many people mistakenly regard cryonics as an effort to achieve immortality. “I’m not talking about living forever,” he says. “I’m talking about waking up tomorrow. When people say they don’t want to extend their lives, they’re talking without thinking. There are very few people who don’t want to wake up tomorrow.”
Koury told me that he was pleasantly surprised by Ettinger’s confidence surrounding the process—“not that it would definitely happen, but that it was definitely the right decision to take the chance. If it works, we’ll have an opportunity to live again. If it doesn’t, then the worms get you either way.”
In a 2015 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, the University of Oslo philosopher Ole Martin Moen upheld Ettinger’s perspective. “Reviving cryopreserved persons, though it cannot be done today,” Moen wrote, “does not require the development of radically new technologies; it requires further refinement and convergence of technologies that already exist … it is rational to opt for a small chance of survival when the alternative is no chance at all.”
Cryonics has also met with skepticism across the scientific community. The main argument is that cryopreservation techniques would cause irreversible brain damage, rendering revival an untenable proposition.
When I asked Koury and Kane whether they were willing to sign up to be cryonically preserved after their own death, neither seemed totally convinced. “It’s just not for me,” Koury said. “I certainly don’t bemoan anyone who chooses to take this path, though. It’s a little strange, but not really that much weirder than some of our other traditions surrounding death—embalming and showcasing a dead body is pretty weird.”
Kane was slightly more amenable to the idea. “I have to admit that sometimes, when I’m having one of those moments late at night, staring into the existential abyss, I try to envision it,” he said. “But it ends up feeling like a Band-Aid for the larger spiritual, eternal mysteries we all must face eventually.”
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