What pop culture before 1962 influenced cryonics? Let’s take a look!
Cryonics aka biostasis has been around for over half a century and has already made a lasting impact on popular culture. From comics to video games, mainstream entertainment has shaped people’s understanding (albeit erroneously) of what human cryopreservation entails. But did you know that early 20th-century pop culture was also important to the foundations of this science? Let’s take a look at some of these influences.
Let’s answer this question first. Simply put, cryonics is the practice of preserving human bodies at cryogenic temperatures (-196°C or -140°C in cases of ITS) after their legal death. The purpose is to preserve a patient so that in the future, medical technologies will be able to treat their patient’s cause of death and revive them to good health. To achieve this, a standby team comes and stabilizes a patient. The process requires medication administration and cardiopulmonary support (CPS) to keep oxygenated blood flowing. In addition, the team begins to cool the patient’s body and replace blood and water with medical-grade anti-freeze known as cryoprotective agents (CPAs). This significantly reduces ice crystal formation inside the body, which is important because we want to avoid freezing patients as much as possible.
Once the body is sufficiently cooled, the patient is then transported to a long-term storage facility where they will undergo the process of vitrification. This transforms the patient into a glass-like state where they can be stored indefinitely at -196°C in cryogenic storage dewars filled with liquid nitrogen. There they will remain until future revival is possible.
That’s the basic science behind cryopreservation. So, how has past and modern media portrayed this science? Let’s take a closer look.
The concept of “suspended animation” has been a popular trope in fiction even before Robert Ettinger published The Prospect of Immortality in 1962. In fairy tales such as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the princesses in each tale are placed into deep sleep using magic until they are revived by a handsome prince. There are also instances in folklore where heroes such as King Arthur of England, or Finn McCool of Ireland (that’s Fionn mac Cumhaill if you’re Irish) have been sleeping for centuries, waiting to return in times of great peril. Even Romeo and Juliet use this trope as a plot device when Juliet tries to avoid marrying Paris, though this tragically goes wrong. However, it isn’t until the 19th and 20th centuries that science begins to replace magical means of achieving this state.
Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the rise of science fiction in literature began to capture the public imagination. Authors such as Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, and others published short stories featuring protagonists who experience states of temporary biological inactivity, both deliberate as well as accidental. As technological innovations progressed over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, other authors began to incorporate new technologies into their writings. That period produced literary works that are still famous today (e.g. Frankenstein, From The Earth To The Moon, Around the World In Eighty Days, etc.), as well as other forms of media such as early television and radio. Let’s take a look at some of these works of fiction and see if we can spot the early influences on cryonics.
Just a heads up, spoilers ahead!
In this short story, we can begin to see the influence of cold temperatures to achieve something dear to people interested in human cryopreservation: longevity! The story tells of a man moving into an apartment in New York City in 1923. He begins to notice a chemical leak from the apartment above and learns that the inhabitant is an old doctor. The more the narrator learns about the doctor, the more he realizes the physician's desire to prolong his life by any means necessary. The doctor’s apartment is kept to a specific temperature of 13 degrees Celsius using a refrigeration system powered by a gasoline engine.
This short story was published in 1928, 14 years after the first domestic air conditioner was installed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Why this odd detail? Because the idea of keeping one’s living space constantly cool is central to the story. Cold temperatures do have health benefits such as strengthening immune systems and enhancing cognitive functions. In addition, cryogenics is utilized in medicine for treatments like whole-body cryotherapy and cryosaunas. These innovations came years after Lovecraft published his short story, but it’s interesting to see how low temperatures are used in relation to longevity.
When discussing the origin of cryonics, it’s important to discuss the Jameson Satellite. This short story was originally published in the science fiction magazine Amazing Stories, which also boasts acclaimed authors such as Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin, and more.
Neil R. Jones’s story centers on scientist Professor Jameson. Aware of his impending death, the Professor asks his nephew to help propel his body into space after death. This is to ensure that the Professor’s body is preserved in the deep-frozen vacuum of space. Little did he know that after he is successfully launched into space, he wakes up 40 million years later thanks to an advanced alien-cyborg species that warms him up, and transplants his brain into a mechanical body.
This short book was published at a time when most people didn’t have televisions. The concept of both traveling to space, of alien cyborgs with advanced technology, and even uploading one’s mind to another body, were all revolutionary at the time. So much so that the story stuck with a young Robert Ettinger. It was this novel that inspired him to research and develop his concept of ‘cryonics’ in his book The Prospect of Immortality. Without The Jameson Satellite, modern human cryopreservation might not have come to be.
John W. Campbell’s sci-fi horror novella similar to the previously mentioned works of fiction also utilized cold temperatures in relation to cryopreservation. In this story, a group of scientists comes across an ancient alien spaceship buried beneath the Antarctic ice. Inside, they discover a frozen alien creature. Turns out that the creature had visited Earth over twenty million years ago! However, the scientists fail to realize the danger they’ve unleashed once the creature is revived.
If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because Who Goes There was adapted into John Carpenter’s famous 1982 film The Thing. In both iterations, we can see the role of using sub-freezing temperatures to prolong life. In this case, instead of an eccentric professor or paranoid doctor, it’s an alien. Even in the ten years since Lovecraft’s Cool Air short story, we can see the trope of utilizing cold temperatures to achieve biostasis grow over the course of a decade. Though the reality of this method was still a long way from how it’s used today.
Human cryopreservation has made a lasting impact on media, before and since its inception. Earlier fiction emphasized the potential that this science could have on human longevity. Today, modern media has examined some of the inherent questions associated with this science: how could such a science be used in the future? What could happen to our minds while our bodies are in biostasis? What are the ethical implications?
One of the most recognizable depictions of this technology is its use for space travel. Games such as the Halo and Star Wars franchises, or films like Passengers or even Alien use cryogenics to achieve cryosleep. This concept is not too far in the realm of science fiction, as there are already ongoing projects by NASA and SpaceWork Enterprises researching its potential application for space travel.
Another popular story associated with this science is what happens when one wakes up from biostasis. Do they awaken to a new, optimistic, and sustainable future, or a dystopian nightmare? In Fallout 4, this is exactly what happens to the sole survivor of Vault 111 after they were tricked into entering a cryopod on the day of the apocalypse. When the machinery malfunctions, the player wakes up 150 years into the future only to see the ruins of the old world. What’s fascinating here, along with films such as Iceman or Passengers, is how a person adjusts and reintegrates into society in the future. This is a question that biostasis organizations will need to consider when revival technologies have advanced to the point where people can be awakened from biostasis.
While mainstream entertainment has brought this science to modern audiences, it has also shaped public perception as to what the process entails. Unfortunately, this has resulted in common misconceptions about human cryopreservation.
There are quite a few misconceptions about human cryopreservation, thanks in part to pop culture. However, rather than try to break down each and every single inaccuracy, let’s focus on the two most common ones.
As previously mentioned, the process of cryopreserving a person involves vitrifying them, not just freezing them. Why is this the case? When something like a human body freezes, ice crystals begin to form on the outside of cells and tissue. This raises two problems: first, it causes the cells to dehydrate, which results in them shrinking in size, and second, the cells are pressed against forming crystals that can rupture and damage the cellular structure. Imagine putting a piece of fruit in your freezer for a month, then taking it out again. You’ll notice it’s mushier and less put-together. This is the result of ice crystals damaging the cellular structure, which causes the fruit to lose its form. Now, if we tried this with people, a patient would need to undergo extensive cellular repair in order to function. However, if the brain is damaged by ice crystal formation, it might not be possible to recreate the cellular structures from mush. To try and avoid this, we vitrify patients and avoid freezing as much as possible.
Another point to this is that in mainstream entertainment, people are alive when they undergo cryopreservation. In reality, however, patients must be legally dead when this process happens. Why can’t we perform this on the living? The process of vitrification would (by the current definition) kill a living patient in the process. So, the procedure can only begin after a patient’s legal pronouncement.
When people bring up this point, they are referring to the fact that, as of writing, no one has been awakened from biostasis. However, there is no biological reason why revival is impossible. So if that’s the case, why hasn’t revival happened yet?
Revival remains one of the most difficult challenges in human cryopreservation. This requires curing a patient of their cause of death, as well as repairing and rejuvenating the body. In addition, there is the difficulty of rewarming a patient. The challenge here lies in the use of CPAs. While they are essential to avoid ice crystal formation, the problem lies in their toxicity. CPAs are toxic to the body in high concentrations, however, at cryogenic temperatures, this isn’t an issue. The issue comes during rewarming. This means that upon revival, CPAs would need to be flushed out of the body quickly to avoid harming a patient. Tomorrow Bio is researching solutions to address the toxicity of these medical-grade anti-freezes. Our goal is to optimize currently existing CPAs and find new combinations that are less toxic to the body.
With all that said, the necessary medical technology for revival to take place has yet to be developed. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t theories as to how this could work. It’s simply too early to deal with it given that medical technology needs to develop to the point of curing various diseases. However, for cryopreserved patients, time isn’t an issue as they can be stored indefinitely.
Reviving someone from biostasis is a complex problem that will require a complex solution. Perhaps one day in the future, revival will be easy to achieve with the press of a button or flip of a switch like we see in films or games.
Throughout time, suspended animation was a popular concept in fiction. By the 19th and 20th centuries, magical means were replaced by scientific solutions to attain longevity. This helped lay the foundations for cryonics as originally conceived by Ettinger. Without the early influences of media and popular culture, this science might not be what it is today.
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