Channel 5 in the UK has been running a series of documentaries with a ‘Stranger than Fiction’ theme. Based upon the promos, which generally made me turn away from the TV and go ‘eew’ (especially the one about head transplants), I’ve steered clear of them… until last night.
“Death in the deep freeze” was about cryonic preservation – freezing bodies (or just the head if you prefer) post mortem* in the hope that future technology can (1) thaw you out, (2) re-animate you, and (3) cure whatever it was that shuffled you off this mortal coil in the first place. Most of the debate was about point 1 and whether you can freeze complex biological systems and then thaw them out so that they still work. As for point 2, I saw many bad science-fiction films about that when I was a teenager. Point 3 seems reasonable; advances in medicine will almost certainly enable us to cure diseases in the future that are not treatable at the moment. The problem is, 3 only becomes relevant in the context of cryonics if 1 and 2 can be sorted out.
(*Apparently, the definition of death comes in to play here – a cryonics ‘patient’ is legally dead, but the proponents of this technology claim that they remain ‘biologically alive’. The programme last night showed the vitrification process in full, including the chest being cracked open and a pretty big drill making its way into the skull – if they do manage to bring anyone back they’re bound to have quite a headache. For more information, go to Alcor’s website).
According to the programme, the freezing and successful thawing of organs has been demonstrated with rabbit kidneys – the goal of this research, however, is to increase the amount of time an organ can be stored before being transplanted. It’s still quite a stretch from there to being able to freeze Thumper whole and then expecting him to munch away on carrots when you warm him up again.
Anyway, why do I bring this up? Well, this was my first public sighting of nanotechnology for some time. According to Ralph Merkle, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, nanotech theorist and Alcor director, future medicine based on molecular nanotechnology may be the answer. The programme contained wonderful animations of nanobots with Merkle telling us that trillions of them could be used to manipulate the molecules in frozen tissue to restore them back to health. Whether you think the whole process may be plausible or not, Merkle has a great ‘payoff matrix’ on his website which reduces the debate to its most simple form.
Stuart Cantrill (Associate Editor, Nature Nanotechnology)