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Cryonics: Freeze Me When I Die So I Can Live Forever

In the 1992 film, Forever Young, Mel Gibson plays a pilot who dies in 1939, is cryonically frozen by his best friend, and wakes up in 1992. And it’s not just a Hollywood invention—cryonics is real. People can choose to become life-sized popsicles when they die with the promise of being brought back to life when mankind figures out how to revive them and nano-repair their disease or damaged bodies and then—ZAP!—bring them back to life.

Actually, we shouldn’t use the word “frozen.” The correct term is vitrified, which is to be cooled to a glassine state at a temperature of -140°C (-220°F). To set it all up, you join a cryonics non-profit (there are four in the world) and pay an annual membership while you are alive. You provide a cash allocation that can be funded by a life insurance policy, before you die, which goes to the cryopreservation company.

On your death, the cryo company sends in a team to cool you, package you, and ship you to a facility where you are cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen until the technology is available to bring you back in 100 or so years. (Or maybe sooner.)

We are going to oversimplify this here, but it helps to understand the process by thinking of the food in your freezer. Consider a bunch of peppers that are on the verge of the compost bin. Chop the veggies up, throw them in a freezer bag, and weeks later they will still make a pretty good pizza topping.

Unlike freezing vegetables, the cryopreservation process is used to freeze a recently deceased person into a glassine state. The key here is to first remove all water from their body and then freeze them in liquid nitrogen. The problem with freezing someone in water is that ice crystals pierce the cell walls. A defrosted frozen pepper is never as vibrant and crunchy as its prefrozen self.

This is why the cryonics process is carefully done slowly and without water to preserve the structure of your cells, and actually most importantly the structure of your brain cells. If you die and are preserved, it means the structure of all that is you is still there. The cryonics process halts physical decay and preserves you as you were at the moment of legal death.

Robert Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute in 1976 in Clinton Township, Michigan. They house 150 patients in cryostasis. A monthly membership fee (usually financed from an annuity) pays to house them in cryostasis.

The other well-known cryonics facility is Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona. As of July 2015, it has another 150 patients in-house who have been cryopreserved. Also, there are facilities in Russia and Switzerland that have a handful of patients. Another facility is being built in Australia and should be opened by 2017.

There are an estimated 300 people in cryostasis in facilities across the United States. Not all have their whole bodies vitrified. Some have opted for preservation of just their heads. This is called neuropreservation. The theory is all that is you is encoded in your brain tissue, and in the future you will be able to grow a new body to replace the one that isn’t frozen.

One of the most notable patients at Alcor is baseball great Ted Williams, whose head was cryopreserved by his children.

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