Cryosleep, cryonics, cryogenics, space sleep… whatever you call it, freezing people for later reanimation has been a staple of science fiction for… forever.
From Star Wars to Star Trek to Red Dwarf to Doctor Who and a whole slew more, humanity has had a love affair with the idea of suspended animation. Heck, even Benjamin Franklin dreamed of being able to embalmed in a special way so that he could be revived when the country was a hundred years older. He knew then that they were just in the infancy of science and it wasn’t feasible and lamented it in a letter to Jacques Dubourg.
While we’ve loved the idea of cryosleep in our fiction, it is something of a reality even now. Sort of.
Freezing people for the sake of later reanimation technically does exist. In fact, there are almost a dozen “well-known” cryonics companies that, for financial payment, will freeze and preserve a human for later revival. Of course, to say that they preserve humans might be a slight overstatement. Many of their guests are nothing more than the brain or head of their former client (Cryogenically frozen are legally considered dead by most governments). The rational here, is that at some point in the future, that’s all they will need to recreate the person.
In fiction, suspended animation exists (most often) for two main reasons:
- Deep space missions over vast distances and very long periods of time (sometimes hundreds or thousands of years)
- Medical preservation
However, today, cryonics only exists for the latter. This is probably because while we have the freezing part pretty good, it’s the waking up part we don’t quite have down. And, without the waking up part, sending a ship across the vastness of space to a new world would probably not end well for the crew.
Of course, some might argue that we don’t really have the freezing part down well either. One of the two major problems with current cryonics, and what really prevents the waking up part, is the damage the freezing causes to the subject’s cells.
Yes. That’s EXACTLY how it works.
Remember in science class in junior high and high school when they said that people are made up of mostly water? Also remember how they told us that when water freezes it expands? Well, these two little bits of science don’t mix too well.
When the water in biological cells freezes and turns into ice crystals, they tend to destroy cell walls and internal structures. This kind of cellular death all across the body, particularly in the brain, is kind of fatal. An article on ABC News’s site covers how science gets around this when freezing embryos.
The question that might come to mind then, is how these companies can even continue to exist if the very nature of what they do actually damages their clients? The belief is that, in the future, humans will have advanced enough to have found a way to reverse the cellular damage. It’s a pretty optimistic view, but not wholly impossible, or even implausible.
To be fair, even the Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a page on their site that specifically goes over the problems and possible solutions with cryonics. While they are still optimistic and positive, they are rather open about the issues. I think it’s kind of their fine print page, to some extent.