What Is Cryonics?

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At its simplest, cryonics is a field of scientific research which seeks to use technological means to cool living tissue, organs, and organisms to the point where physical decay stops indefinitely, and then aims to restore them once more to normal healthy functioning.

But this very simple idea is also very simple to misunderstand, because it involves several related but different scientific disciplines.

For example, cryonics must be distinguished from cryogenics - the study of extreme low temperature on physical materials whether animate or inanimate. It must also be distinguished from cryobiology - the study of the effects of low temperature on biological material - because the study of low temperature effects on such material does not necessarily mean extreme low temperatures. Cryobiology does necessarily try to achieve cooling without any damage, or with only repairable damage. Nor does cryobiology necessarily search for ways to restore the cooled biological specimens it studies.

Cryonics must also be distinguished from cryomedicine and from cryosurgery. Recent medical operations performed on human beings cooled to lower (but above-freezing) temperatures have shown to produce effective life-saving results. But these lower temperatures have not involved temperatures so low that an end to all physical decay, or 'biostasis', is produced.

Clearly cryonics is related in various ways to all these scientific disciplines, and it may benefit from research findings in those areas. The converse is true as well: developments in cryonics could conceivably help foster positive and beneficial breakthroughs in a number of the above fields.

This image of cryonics as a specialized field of scientific research changed in 1964 as a result of a book published by mathematician and physics professor Robert C. W. Ettinger. The book was called "The Prospect Of Immortality" and it may be said to have created the second, popular, definition of cryonics, and also what has come to be known as the 'cryonics movement'.

Robert EttingerThe thesis of Ettinger's book was that, given the fact that extreme low temperature precluded further decay, any individual cooled to such temperatures could be maintained in that state until such time as scientific research might progress to the point that both the cause of death, as well as any freezing damage itself, could be repaired and the person cured and restored to life.

In short: if a person dying today were cooled quickly enough, he or she could reasonably expect to be restored to life at some point in the future.

Ettinger's book galvanized many readers, and several of them, eventually including Ettinger himself, chose to take the idea out of the realm of abstract speculation and into real life. Organizations were formed with the avowed intention of freezing people and safely sheltering their bodies until such time as restoration became possible.

And in fact many individuals since have chosen to sign up for cryonics treatment, and some of them, upon declaration of legal death, are now being securely protected and maintained at ultra-low temperatures in what has variously been called suspended animation, or cryonics suspension, or cryostasis, where they are now awaiting restoration.

This second meaning of the term 'cryonics' -- the actual practice of cooling individuals and maintaining them indefinitely until some form of scientific restoration becomes possible -- caught the imagination of both science fiction writers and journalists, and eventually became what people commonly understand by the term.

But that understanding proved to have unexpected and detrimental effects on cryonics as a developing science and technology.

Early cryonics organizations were not well funded nor did not have as extensive a pool of professional support as they might have preferred. Early cryonics supporters and groups were not public relations experts and often attracted satirical attention from the press. Scientists eager to associate themselves with serious projects became increasingly eager to disassociate themselves from a field that all too frequently found itself in the headlines of supermarket tabloids.

Also, at the very start of cryonics, there was no plausible scientific rationale for believing that irreparable freezing damage could be avoided, or repaired. Ettinger himself wrote that centuries of progress might be necessary before people could be restored. Cryonics was criticized for being blind faith in science rather than science itself.

Yet scientific approaches soon arrived which made cryonics increasingly plausible. Ways to repair freezing damage incurred even by people cooled by existing present-day methods were outlined and projected by scientists in new fields such as nanotechnology and nanomedicine.  Ways to avoid freezing damage entirely were soon developed with the advent of a cryobiological technique called vitrification.

The possibility of a successful cryonics grew more and more likely.  Even though negative perceptions persisted among those members of the public and scientists who were not aware of the latest developments.

What is cryonics today? It's an ever-evolving field of science and technology, and a personal and social option available to you here and now as an alternative to the certain physical destruction of cremation or burial.

Can even people who are currently being placed in cryonic suspension be restored one day in the future? An ever-increasing number of doctors and scientists believe so. And an ever-increasing number of people also believe that, for cryonics to achieve its goals and fulfill its humanitarian promise, a new understanding and acceptance of cryonics by the public must come into being.

That is why the Cryonics Society was formed.

Learn more about the Cryonics Society and cryonics by exploring our web site or by emailing us at contact [at] cryonicssociety.org.

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