The Frozen Few

W. Patrick McCray

It’s an old joke. A physicist, a chemist, and an economist find themselves stranded on an island. They have some water but, for food, there’s just cans of tuna fish. But they have no can opener. The physicist sketches a Rube Goldberg-ian device in the sand to smash cans open. But this, his colleagues say, would scatter the food. The chemist offers to make an acid that will eat away the cans. But this would render the food poisonous. They sit. They fret. And then the economist leaps to his feet and shouts “I’ve got it!” What?” his friends ask. “Let’s assume,” he says, “that we have a can opener.”

It’s an old joke. But it’s funny – mocking the pretensions of those who proffer solutions premised on assumptions that are often unrealistic or perhaps even nonexistent. The cryonics community made a similar leap of imagination in the 1980s.

A decade earlier, organizations like the Life Extension Society, the Cryonics Institute, and the Alcor Society had sprung up to meet the wishes of a small group of people – call them the frozen few – who wanted to have their bodies frozen after their passing (see “Many Are Cold, Few Are Frozen”).
But cryonicists rested their hopes on some very vague assumptions about the future. Less a resurrection strategy, theirs was an attempt to redefine death until medical science could cure what ailed them.

Already just over the fringe of respectability, the cryonics community hit an iceberg-sized obstacle in 1979. For years, Bob Nelson, a television repairman and president of the Cryonics Society of California, had maintained that nine “patients” entrusted to his care were safely preserved in large dewars at a cemetery in Chatsworth. What he did not maintain was the necessary supply of liquid nitrogen. The result was predictable and gruesome. National news coverage, lawsuits, and large jury settlement against Nelson followed.

Cryonics went into a deep hibernation. It stayed that way until 1984 when its advocates a new lease on life.

When cryonicists first began organizing, they could offer no convincing explanation for how suspended patients/customers might experience their high-tech revival. They assumed that somehow medical technology would advance enough to make this possible, but lacked a concrete mechanism.

Then the cryonics community found its can opener. It was called nanotechnology.

The original standard bearer for nanotechnology was K. Eric Drexler. A graduate of MIT, in 1981, he published a peer-reviewed article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Molecular Engineering.” As an undergraduate student, Drexler was heavily involved in the grassroots pro-space movement of the 1970s, writing articles space colonies, asteroid mining, and solar sails. Drexler’s attentions gradually migrated to what he called “molecular engineering.”1 His PNAS article described a general concept for “protein machines” which, directed by computer code, could self-replicate. Able to build or construct almost anything, Drexler predicted that molecular engineering could open a door to environmentally benign manufacturing and future health applications. Full of radical ideas but short on specific scientific details, Drexler’s early writings described a technological future in which engineers had precise control over the material world. Most critically for cryonicists, Drexler’s PNAS article alluded to the possibility that future molecular devices might be able to repair frozen or damaged tissue.

Nanotechnology (the term wasn’t Drexler’s but he deserves credit for popularizing it in the mid-1980s) revived the revivalists. As a result, cryonicists became one of the first communities – Bay Area software engineers were another – to enthusiastically embrace what were among the most speculative ideas about nanotechnology.

In August 1984, for example, Mike Darwin (his original surname was Federowicz), who served as president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation from 1983 to 1988, wrote an article in Cryonics, his organization’s monthly newsletter. “I think about my efforts to stop the inexorable fall toward nothingness,” he wrote, “I think about the waiting not so much as I think about the future.” But, he confided, he felt “better now about tomorrow” than he had for years. “I can thank Eric Drexler for that. I can thank him for a fresh new vision of tomorrow where molecular machines exist and scraps of people grow whole and walk the earth again.”2

Darwin owed his gratitude to a draft version of Drexler’s first book that circulated among some n the cryonics community. This “very excellent manuscript” detailed the “kind of technology which will likely be required to revive us.”3 Drexler’s draft, then called The Future by Design, eventually became his strong-selling 1986 book The Engines of Creation. Two decades earlier, Drexler’s publisher, Doubleday, had brought Robert Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality wide public attention. Likely a coincidence, this juxtaposition nonetheless provides a lovely symmetry, given how enthusiastically the cryonics community embraced Drexler’s vision for nanotechnology. Over the next several years, almost every issue of Cryonics carried some mention of Drexler and nanotechnology.

In May 1985, some 60 people from the U.S. and overseas traveled to Lake Tahoe for the 4th Life Extension Festival. After listening to presentations with titles like “Why Keep Living?” and “Heat Flow in the Cryonic Suspension of Humans,” Drexler delivered a much-anticipated talk he called “Molecular Technology and Cell Repair Machines.”4 Subsequently reprinted in Alcor’s magazine, Drexler described a “technology that seems to be clearly able to make it possible for people to live indefinitely in perfect health.” But, failing that, this as-yet-to-be-invented technology held out the possibility of repairing tissue damaged by cryonic suspension. One conference attendee reported that Drexler, himself now a member of Alcor, “led people from nano-technology to cryonics.” Anecdotal evidence bears this out. In the next few years, at least three people attributed their hope and confidence in cryo-suspension to Drexler’s vision of the technological future. As one reader told Cryonics, “Having read K. Eric Drexler’s book, Engines of Creation, my wife Carol and have decided to become full Alcor members.”5

Alcor’s own data supports this. For much of the late 1970s and into the mid-1980s, the number of “suspension members” (people who had signed up to be cryo-preserved) flat-lined. A noticeable revival in membership occurred around 1986, the timing of which coincides with the appearance of Drexler’s Engines and his successful popularization of nanotechnology.

Drexlerian nanotechnology remained popular with cryonics enthusiasts. A survey of Alcor members undertaken in 1988 provides some rough sociological data – although somewhat limited due to the relatively small sample size – about who constituted the cryonics community. When it came to reading materials, over three-fourths of respondents said they had read Engines, a number that surpassed those who had read Ettinger’s own book which had been, of course, cryonics ur-text.

Californians continued to make up the largest fraction of Alcor’s membership in the 1990s.6 The possibility of life extension via cryonics enjoyed an especially warm reception among the Silicon Valley’s high tech culture. As a feature in the San Jose Mercury News reported, it was logical for cryonics to appeal to Silicon Valley engineers and programmers. For them, it was explained, “technology is everything.” The article went on to profile several “nerds on ice”, early adopters who “will accept and dive into things before it [sic] is widely accepted.”7

For some technophiles this enthusiasm extended to the radical vision of nanotechnology that Drexler popularized as well as cryonics. The actualization of both of these technologies still waited over the temporal horizon. But, for many cryonicists, the possibility of cheating death had come to rest on the precarious assumption that sufficiently robust nanotechnology might one day exist to bring them back to life.

Throughout the history of technology, we find other examples of how the development of one technology follows from another. The confluence of cryonics and nanotechnology shows how people’s visions of the technological future were likewise coupled, like railroad cars making their way over the horizon. One had to go before the other. As cryonicists redefined life extension in the 1980s, the future of cryonics required that nanotechnology happen first. Cryonicists might be able to place their friends, family and themselves into large, liquid nitrogen-filled dewars. But only the can opener of nanotechnology would get them out.

  1. This term originally served as the title of a speculative 1955 article by Arthur von Hippel, an MIT professor who wrote about the design of future materials. Arthur von Hippel, “Molecular Engineering,” Science, 123 (1956), 315-17. 

  2. Quotes from p. 24-25 of Cryonics, #49, August 1984. 

  3. Cryonics, #45, April 1984, 6. 

  4. Described in the August 1985 issue of Cryonics

  5. From p. 17 of December 1989 issue of Cryonics

  6. Michael Cieply, “They Freeze Death If Not Taxes,” Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1990. 

  7. Tim Larimer, “The Next Ice Age,” West (magazine supplement to the San Jose Mercury News), December 9, 1990, 17-26. 

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