Some of the folk at the University of Oxford Future of Humanity Institute recently engineered a little publicity for cryonics. It's always pleasing to see good press for the cryonics industry, especially when those interviewed take the time to present membership with a cryonics provider like Alcor or the Cryonics Institute as a sensible and rational choice.
What is cryonics? It is the collection of technologies and service providers that offer long-term low-temperature preservation of the brain (vital) and body (probably not so vital). The goal is a chance at future resuscitation, once medicine, nanotechnology, and related fields have advanced to the point at which a stored person can be brought back to active life. It doesn't much matter whether this takes fifty or a hundred years or even longer: while preserved a patient has time to wait. If technology is advanced enough to restore a preserved individual, so the thinking goes, then it is also advanced enough to restore an aged brain to youthful function and repair the age-damaged body, or provide a tissue engineered replacement if you chose not to have your body preserved. Some people are even fine with a copy their brain running as software via future methods of whole brain emulation. That doesn't much help you yourself, the entity associated with your physical brain, but all too many people are fine with the other way of looking at things, which is that a copy of the self is also the self.
In short, cryonics is the only chance at a longer life in the future for those people who will not live long enough to benefit from rejuvenation biotechnology presently under development. Death by aging will one day be a thing of the past, but all too many people will still be claimed by aging between now and the advent of the first rejuvenation therapies. Cryonics is also a good backup plan: you never know how early you might be struck down by age-related disease, cancer in particular. Cryonics, like the life insurance usually used to pay for it, and like saving for retirement, is something that is best organized a fair way in advance.
It's worth noting that cryopreservation is not freezing, and in fact is distinguished by the many efforts taken to avoid freezing of any tissue, especially in the brain where the data of the mind is stored. Freezing damages cells through ice crystal formation, but infusion with cryoprotectant chemicals combined with low temperatures is used to produce a state of vitrification in cryopreserved tissues.
Three professors from England's Oxford University are paying to have their bodies frozen so they can be thawed out and brought back to life in the future. Philosophy professor Nick Bostrom and neuroscientist Anders Sandberg have signed up to pay nearly $79,000 to have their heads filled with "antifreeze" chemicals and stored in liquid nitrogen at -196C in the US after they die. Their colleague Stuart Armstrong has chosen to have his entire body frozen.
The men, who are the lead researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute, have reportedly set up monthly life insurance policies and pay about $40 a month to be frozen.
Previous acolytes of cryonics have often been dismissed as head-in-the-clouds cranks, sci-fi buffs who have watched too much TV or victims of vanity. Britney Spears and Paris Hilton have both waxed lyrical about being frozen. Simon Cowell is believed to be among several dozen Britons who have joined a cryonics programme, although several hundred have reportedly shown interest.
But most of them are ordinary people - usually retirees who are thinking about defeating death. The science may be sketchy but the principle is simple: nothing ventured, nothing gained. But Prof Bostrom and his colleagues are young, highly educated specialists who have devoted their careers to humanity. If they are signing up for cryonics, one might think, perhaps we should all pay attention.
That latter reaction is exactly why it's a good thing to see well-publicized advocacy for cryonics from noted researchers. In many ways this is far better than any celebrity endorsement. To the fellow in the street scientists are the arbiters of truth, the people that tell you what is, the people who know best the nature of the world. Celebrities are just celebrities.