Approximately 150,000 people die every day, two thirds of those due to the effects of aging. As a result their individuality, their minds, the pattern of data encoded in the fine structure of the cells of the brain, is destroyed and lost to oblivion. They are gone, irrevocably and irreversibly. But it doesn't have to be this way: the technologies exist to preserve most of these people at death, and store their brains - their minds, their selves - for a future in which they can be restored to life in a new body. Yet they are not used. The small and largely unappreciated field of cryonics offers the option of low-temperature preservation to await a future of profoundly capable medical technology, but barely 200 people have taken up that offer over the past four decades.
Cryonics as an industry presently consists of two established professional non-profit organizations, both decades old, a handful of supporting companies and groups offering various services other than preservation, and a few younger organizations established in recent years. The broader cryonics community seems perpetually on the cusp between young industry and growing industry: it has never managed to break out from the early niche. A great deal of ink has been spilled and many theories proposed as to why this is the case - perhaps it is a subset of the broader disinterest in living longer lives that is displayed by the public at large.
So instead of living in a rational world, in which as many people as possible have the chance to be rescued from oblivion through a competitive, large-scale cryonics industry, we live in a world in which the masses march knowingly to death and destruction, near every last one of them shunning the few paths that might prevent that end. Cryonics, research into reversal of aging, and so forth: these are greeted with yawning disinterest or mockery by the population at large.
Cryonics has become more accepted, and great strides have been made in growing support for rejuvenation research in the past ten years, I should mention. But we have incremented the counter just a few notches, and there are another hundred left to go if we want to see a research community the size of the cancer or stem cell establishment working away to produce a halt to degenerative aging. Meanwhile people still die of aging, and cryonics is the only presently available option other than the grave.
Every industry has its early disasters, and cryonics is no exception: these largely happened in the late 1960s and 1970s, when amateurs promised more than they could afford and could deliver, and as a result preserved individuals were lost. We should not forget, because when you forget these unpleasant histories you stop striving to be better. The only way to deliver good service over the long term is to adopt the rules and rigor of professionalism, just the same as in any business, whether for profit or otherwise. The established cryonics providers of today remain small organizations, but they are a world removed from the early years of amateur groups and comparatively poor preservation methods. Here is a look back:
The history of any radical idea has its heroes and its villains. In cryonics, Bob Nelson has been both. He was among the first to embrace the notion that a person could be eased into a deep freeze at the moment of death, preserved indefinitely in a thermos-like container of liquid-nitrogen, and then brought back to life when advances in medicine and technology allow it.
On Jan. 12, 1967, as president of the Cryonics Society of California, he helped freeze the first man, a 73-year-old retired psychology professor from Glendale who had cancer. That pioneering experiment turned Nelson into a media sensation - TV shows, newspaper interviews, magazine covers. Twelve years later, sensation gave way to scandal. Nine bodies Nelson was preserving in a cemetery vault in Chatsworth thawed, halting their journey to a better tomorrow. Some of the relatives sued Nelson and a colleague and won $800,000.
He disappeared from public view, changed his name, and settled into what he was before cryonics captured his imagination: a TV repairman. About 20 years ago, he moved to Oceanside. "I swore I would never ever even say the word cryonics again," he said.
Mike Perry, a cryonics historian who is a case services manager for Alcor, said Nelson deserves credit for helping to freeze the first person, but the "horrific" failure at Chatsworth still "burns in people's minds" as a cautionary tale. "We have to be sure there is adequate funding before committing ourselves to the demanding task of long-term maintenance of persons in cryogenic storage," Perry said.
To be clear, a preserved individual is still an individual. They still have the potential to return in the future. Nelson offered a rescue from an otherwise fatal situation, failed to carry through successfully, and was judged and still is judged on that. That most people and the legal system consider cryopreserved individuals to in effect no longer be people, nor to have rights, nor a voice beyond the murky law of wills and posthumous trusts, is somewhat beside the point.