Based in Scottsdale, AZ, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation is a nonprofit that works to advocate, research and improve upon the science of cryonics, in which humans are stored in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196 degrees Celsius (-320.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Absolute zero, the temperature at which atoms stop moving, is about 77 degrees Celsius less. But trust me, liquid nitrogen is cold enough.
Scottsdale is in the middle of one of the areas of the United States that is least prone to natural disasters of any kind. This is a good thing. If you’re going to be cryonically suspended for centuries you certainly want to limit the chances that an earthquake will crack your liquid nitrogen chamber.
The organization that became Alcor was founded in 1972. The only other major cryonics organization is the Cryonics Institute, which came along in 1976. Both groups are engaged in a continuing quest to make cryopreservation both socially acceptable and also more effective at reducing the harm that animal cells endure when undergoing such a process.
Some animals are already known to survive extreme freezing/thawing cycles: 5 frog species, several turtle species, a salamander and a snake. In these various amphibians and reptiles, urea and glucose concentrations naturally increase, which limit the formation of ice crystals in their cells. Water bears (tardigrades), those barely-visible-to-the-naked-eye creatures that live almost everywhere on Earth, also use a heavy concentration of a type of sugar molecule as a cryoprotectant.
Alcor began by cryopreserving clients’ heads. Later, they moved on to offer full-body cryopreservation. The cost for Alcor is roughly $80,000 for neuropreservation and $200,000 for whole body preservation. This can be paid in cash, or a client can take out a life insurance policy in that amount and sign it over to Alcor. So you, too, can afford cryopreservation if you can afford an extra $50 a month or so for another insurance policy.
When you sign up and become an Alcor member, and provide proof of the life insurance policy or other payment, you are then on the “list”. When the time comes (hopefully not for a long time — but, you never know), an Alcor team will show up to start the process.
It’s four steps, which you can read about in detail here, and that I will outline briefly:
Deployment and Standby — If Alcor gets a head-up that you are about to die, they can be there and ready beforehand. This is the best scenario, since the faster you get through the cryopreservation process the better. Your cells have less time to deteriorate.
Stabilization — After you are pronounced legally dead, the Alcor team performs numerous procedures to keep your body from deteriorating faster than they have to, including administering ventilation, restoring circulation, injecting anti-blood clotting medication, and initiating rapid cooling.
Cryoprotectant perfusion — Once your body is at Alcor HQ, your blood is replaced with their vitrification solution. If you’ve only signed up for neuropreservation, your head is removed and only that is perfused.
Cryogenic cooldown — Now you’re ready for your liquid nitrogen bath. Your head or whole body is cooled slowly to the final temperature. Heads and whole bodies are stored top-down, so that in the unlikely event of a coolant leak the brain is the last part that would be “defrosted”.
Your new home for the next ??? years will be a ten-foot tall aluminum cylinder.
I am going for whole body cryopreservation. It costs more, but when put in terms of a life insurance policy it isn’t THAT much more. The good thing about the neuropreservation, though, is that you won’t be totally alone for your long wait. Heads are stored in groups of five, so you’ll have 5 buddies to commiserate with.
It’s important to know a little bit about what happens in order for me to explain why I’ve decided to do this.
It’s also important to know that I have always been a science fiction aficionado and futuro-optimist.
I also consider myself a realist. I don’t expect a miracle. I’m hedging my bets.
The pace of scientific advancement was extreme in the 20th century. The world’s civilizations transitioned from simple steam and animal power to relying on space travel, the internet and robotics to maintain that civilization. Possibilities that were little more than fictional musings in 1900, and many that no one had even yet imagined, actually became realities: credit cards, in-ear headphones, robots, holograms, moon landings, nuclear submarines, jets, vaccinations, lasers, cell phones and 3D printers. All of this, and much more, actually came to be in little over 100 years.
The next 100 years is going to see a great deal of advancement in energy, genetic medicine and space technology. Even if the overall pace of invention and innovation displayed in the 20th century is a peak that will never again be matched, we will still witness the continuing realization of many technological wonders that were born as dreams of science fiction creators and visionaries.
Humanity has a tendency to do this — to dream, and then work to make the dream happen. That combination of imagination, curiosity and drive is one of the traits that makes us so successful as a species. Dangerous, yes, in many cases, but successful nevertheless.
It will take the best we can dream up for nanotechnology and medicine in order to take someone who has been cryopreserved in the late 20th and early 21st centuries and revive them. Completely fixing a frozen brain and body may not be possible for 300 years, if ever. But perhaps cloning and mind uploading technologies can be leveraged to effectively allow someone to be brought back from the dead so long as the brain structure and the individual’s DNA are intact.
People I talk to about this who aren’t very well informed have a lot of questions. My wife isn’t totally on-board with this, either. I’m trying to convince her.
One of the big misconceptions I hear is “What happens when they bring you back to life and you’re still old/cancer-ridden/brain damaged/etc.?”
If/when science is ever advanced enough to actually revive someone from a cryopreserved state, the level of advancement necessary for that feat alone will in almost any case require so many other areas to be advanced that it is most likely any problem that you died with, including old age, would also be able to be fixed.
Another question is, “When you do come back, everyone you ever knew will be gone. Why would you want to do that?”
I invariably sense some anger, and some resentment, when I hear this. Some people feel their loved ones intend to abandon them in the afterlife by choosing cryopreservation.
Alcor and Cryonics Institute will not cryopreserve a living person. I will be very dead when I undergo their process. Whatever happens when you die is going to happen to me.
Essentially, I’m choosing a mode of burial that is the opposite of cremation. I want my body and brain to be kept, just in case, on the off-chance, that maybe someday enough sci-fi dreams will become reality that it will allow me to wake up after a long sleep and see the future. If we reach that point of advancement, by definition, it will have to be a future that is on the level of Star Trek: not quite a utopia, but damn near close.
If you get cremation or traditional burial beneath the ground or in a mausoleum, your body and mind are done. You have a 0% chance of ever experiencing anything — in life — ever again. I have never been a fan of 0% chances. Anything greater than zero is better than zero. Even if the odds of medical technology ever being able to bring me back from cryopreservation are only 5%, or even 1%, in the long term, I will opt for that over zero.
If I can’t ever manage to convince any of my loved ones to join me in making this bet on the future, I will be upset. But I will still do it. I will wake up possibly a few centuries from now, truly alone, truly sad, but I will know. I will know that it worked. I will have seen the future.
My curiosity will be satiated.
Thank you for reading and sharing!