Thursday, January 28, 2016

Freezing People is (not) Easy: My Adventures in Cryonics

Freezing People is (not) Easy: My Adventures in Cryonics was a rapid-read history of cryonics, the dubious science of freezing the dead under the hope of reviving the corpses later, written by the former president of the Cryonics Society of California (CSC), Bob Nelson, with Kenneth Bly and Sally Magaña. Nelson became enrapt, or more like obsessed, with cryonics after reading the pioneering book on the topic, The Prospect of Immortality by Robert Ettinger in 1965, for in it he learned:

"My mind was inexorably bent toward cryonics and this new way of looking at death. For if a person can be revived, then he had never actually died. This is probably the most misunderstood aspect of cryonics suspension. Once a person is dead, he is dead. Nothing can bring a dead body back to life. But death does not happen in an instant; we travel a long journey to the land beyond the veil. Along that path, we pass through a complicated biological sequence as blood stops flowing, chemical reactions halt, electrical impulses stop, and there is no life force to prevent the decay. By lowering the body temperature at an early stage of the dying process (that is, clinical death), we slow down the journey and stop the dying progression, thereby keeping the patient from ever reaching the stage of complete irretrievable death. Freeze the person and stop the dying."

Nelson devoted all his time (and eventually, all his money) to the science of preserving bodies. Fifty years ago, at the beginning of the cryonics movement, there was a lot of interest in theory but few takers in practice. Sadly, when people died, Nelson and his fellow cryonics supporters found that their dearly departed late friends left them no money, or not enough, to preserve them for possible future revival. 

Possessed by the knowledge of a revolutionary new science affecting the future of humanity, Nelson could not deny these people the chance to be "suspended", as cryonicists describe the term of being frozen immediately after death. Nor could he ignore them afterwards, as all corpses required the constant maintenance of dry ice and liquid nitrogen replacement. Nelson was the sole person who kept the initial cryonics "heroes", as he referred to them, under ice. This took years of his time and cost him his marriage.

I liked this story because it was told by Nelson in the first person. It flowed smoothly and did not seem repetitive, which is a fault of monologue books that are unedited before being transcribed. He was smart enough to anticipate questions the readers might have, and addressed them within the first-person narrative in each chapter. One such question concerned the whereabouts of Walt Disney's remains. An urban myth is that Walt Disney himself had been cryopreserved in suspended animation. Nelson shed light on this story: it was he himself who took the call from Disney studios in 1966. However, he never spoke to Disney and neither he nor the CSC ever heard from the Disney studios again. 

Cryonics was and still is an experimental science and of the nine people who were the first to submit themselves to cryopreservation, seven were lost. Their capsules leaked or their dry ice and liquid nitrogen ran out. Thus all the work Nelson did for years--single-handedly and with no funding whatsoever--to maintain them in frozen suspended animation was in vain. A chapter was devoted to a lawsuit filed by relatives who alleged Nelson killed their parents (in their eyes, they died a second time) when their cryonic preservation failed. The trial story could have been lifted right out of a comedy movie as Nelson's own attorney, a manic-depressive on lithium, Robert Winterbotham, could barely stay awake in court. The antics during the trial did however seem too exaggerated to be real. Nelson feared the worst from the jury and needless to say, his lawyer was of no help. The trauma of the verdict made him walk away from cryonics for the next twenty-five years.   

I had first learned about cryonics while watching a TV mysteries show about 35 years ago. While I was curious about the whole idea of bringing the dead back to life, I remain a nonbeliever after reading this book. In spite of the faith Nelson and his followers have in future medical breakthroughs being able to "cure" the dead, I do not believe that anyone declared dead can be revived. Cryonics is a quack science and belongs in the science fiction collection. Nonetheless, Freezing People is (not) Easy was a history, as well as a personal memoir that I could not put down. It was a tragic man-with-a-mission story.

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