Man seeks to beat death by de-animation
Historians have long pondered the whereabouts of the Fountain of Youth: Herodotus thought it was in Ethiopia, the Spanish put their money on the Caribbean.
But the Fountain of Youth may actually be in Bankstown in Sydney's western suburbs, just around the corner from the train station in the tiny, third-floor rental apartment of Mark Milton and his wife, Yan.
Milton, 47, is the co-founder and director of Stasis Systems Australia, a not-for-profit company that aims to build Australia's first cryonic storage facility.
He has also been a policeman, lift operator, theology student, carer for the intellectually disabled, landscape gardener, house painter, plasterer, factory foreman and IT consultant.
"I get bored fairly quickly," he says.
For those of you who don't subscribe to Strange Horizons magazine, cryonics is the low-temperature preservation of human bodies in the hope of future resuscitation.
When Milton dies, or "de-animates", as he calls it, he will be packed in ice ("just normal party ice"), and cooled down. His blood will be drained and replaced with anti-freeze, and his body stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees celsius.
If all goes to plan, he will be defrosted some time in the future - "100 to 200 years from now is my best guess" - when science will be able to restore him to peak physical fitness.
Milton first heard about cryonics as a kid, through reading science fiction, but only became seriously interested four years ago, while researching life-extension techniques.
One night he attended a meeting of the Cryonics Association of Australasia (CAA) in a cafe in the city, where he met Peter Tsolakides, a retired manager for ExxonMobil, the oil company. At the meeting, both men were disappointed to discover that there was no cryonics facility in Australia.
If you wanted to get frozen, you had to go to the USA. This is not impossible - the Cryonics Institute, in Michigan, has six Australians in cryopreservation, and the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, in Arizona, has two - but it is certainly inconvenient.
You either had to be aware you were on the way out and get on a plane, quickly, or wait until you had de-animated and have someone, usually an obliging member from CAA, pack you in ice and mail you over. Either way, it was a logistical nightmare, and so Milton and Tsolakides decided to start a local operation.
That was in 2009. Since then, Stasis has recruited 11 investors, each of whom has agreed to put in A$50,000 ($63,162). This money will fund the construction of the facility, which should be complete by 2014, and pay for the investors' cryonic suspension, when the time comes.
Milton, who works from home, spends his time liaising with NSW Health, which has been "very supportive", and, more recently, scouting for suitable land sites.
"We are currently looking for a couple of acres in regional NSW - Yass, Wagga Wagga, Goulburn ... It has to be a low-risk area for natural disasters, like bushfires, earth tremors or flooding, and it needs to be somewhere with reliable power, sealed access and liquid nitrogen delivery routes, because liquid nitrogen is essential."
Cryonics tends to attract two types of people: nerds and optimists. Milton fits both these categories. He is extremely articulate and unfailingly polite. The day I meet him, he is padding around his apartment in a pair of socks, his grey skivvy tucked into tight black jeans. He has two adult sons, Loki and Elric, by a prior marriage, and a three-year-old, called Orion, with Yan.
He looks and sounds like a Star Trek groupie, Captain Kirk in the 'burbs, a man capable of making the march of progress seem truly ineluctable, even as he is changing Orion's nappy.
"A few hundred years ago saw the Industrial Revolution, large cities and advances in the sciences. Today we're on the verge of another revolution, with advancing medical science, information technology and increasing lifespans," he says, smiling at Yan, who sits on the couch, hands in her lap, radiating forbearance.
"People who in the past would have died now routinely survive; not far down the track, it's possible that people won't die at all. And given that's the case, we might find that people have the opportunity to choose how long they live. Cryonics gives me that choice."
I ask Yan if she plans to get frozen. "I don't know," she smiles. "Sometimes I think, if we come back in hundreds of years, will we even know each other?"
So what happens, I ask Milton, if he gets frozen and Yan doesn't, and he wakes up in the future without her? "Well," he says, glancing at his wife, then back at me, "I'll miss her."
DREAMS OF IMMORTALITY
Until recently, however, the calculus of mortality was clear: death, followed by rigor mortis, followed by rot. One of the earliest attempts to upend this process was by Scottish surgeon John Hunter, who tried in 1766 to reanimate a frozen fish.
Serious talk of freezing bodies began in 1962, with the publication of Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now, by Evan Cooper. Cooper coined the slogan "freeze, wait, reanimate", but dropped out of the movement in 1970, by which time his influence had been eclipsed by an eccentric World War II veteran named Robert Ettinger.
Born in 1918, Ettinger was raised on a high-protein diet of science fiction. Wounded in battle in 1944, his life was saved by skin- and bone-graft surgery and by antibiotics, fostering in him an unshakeable faith in modern medicine.
In 1964, after dabbling in science-fiction writing, he published The Prospect of Immortality, cryonics' founding text.
In it, Ettinger, who trained mainly as a physicist, not only covers the science of cryo-biology and how it might apply to humans, but renders the future as a "Golden Age", a kind of Jetsons-esque utopia featuring intelligent robots, climate-controlled cities and something called ectogenesis, where foetuses are incubated in jars. He also anticipated some of the issues raised by sceptics, such as overcrowding: he suggested that people "simply agree to share the available space in shifts, going into suspended animation from time to time to make room for others".
Ettinger died last year, and is frozen at the Cryonics Institute, which he founded in 1976, along with 112 other humans and 91 pets. And yet among a certain type of man (80 per cent of cryonicists are male), his ideas live on.
Peter Tsolakides read Ettinger's work in the late 1960s, while studying chemistry at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.
"It just always made sense to me, certainly versus the alternative," he says. "It made so much sense that I thought by the time I retired it would be commonplace." (In fact, the cryonics community comprises just 2500 people worldwide: even cryonicists joke that the Flat Earth Society is more popular.)
Tsolakides is 62, and lives in a modern, four-bedroom home in Dover Heights, in Sydney's eastern suburbs, with Soula, his wife of 35 years. Four years ago, he left a long and successful career in the oil industry, during which he worked in strategic planning for ExxonMobil in Japan, America and Thailand. As a co-founder and director of Stasis, Tsolakides concerns himself mostly with devising a business plan for the company.
People often ask him why he wants to live forever. "But I'm not saying we want to live forever. We're saying that we want to choose when we go, after we've done all the things we want to do."
The list of all the things Tsolakides wants to do includes: take up cooking, travel more, be around when scientists figure out what dark matter is, go to the 500th Olympiad (due in the year 3892), read every book he can get his hands on, and learn Spanish classical guitar. ("I do not think I would be musical enough for it, but if you have time, many things are possible.") He'd also like to write some books, one of which would explode the fallacies of Japanese management.
Does he foresee a time where he will have read enough books, seen enough countries, played enough guitar, and be ready to check out? "I don't know," he says. "Ask me in 1000 years."
FAITH, NOT RELIGION
For a group that tends not to be religious, cryonics involves an extraordinary amount of faith. Faith in the future, faith in technology, faith in whoever froze you to keep paying the bills.
And yet the history of cryonics is littered with instances of this faith being woefully misplaced, with surviving relatives who lost interest and pulled the plug, or with cryonics companies that simply went broke.
The most famous case of this was in 1979, when the Chatsworth facility in California went under, leaving nine bodies to quietly thaw out. One observer claimed that by the time they were discovered, the cadavers had "sludged down into what I can best describe as a kind of a black goo". (Cryonicists denied the goo claim, but Chatsworth set their cause back decades.)
When it does start freezing bodies, Stasis will follow standard cryonics operating procedure, which is to freeze clients upside down. This way, if there is any leakage of liquid nitrogen out of the top of the cryostat, the first thing to thaw out are the feet, leaving your brain nice and cold.
The company's business model is similarly prudent. Clients will pay A$50,000, which will be conservatively invested, at, say, 4 percent, providing A$2000 a year for upkeep.
"People imagine that cryonics is for millionaires, but it's cheaper than you think," Tsolakides says.
Basic upkeep, he estimates, will come in at about A$1000 a year. This includes the liquid nitrogen, which costs A$300 to A$400 per patient per year. The rest goes toward employee wages, maintenance and utilities.
"Even the cryostats themselves only cost between A$30,000 to A$50,000, and you can fit up to six people in them at a time."
Tsolakides insists that "there are, of course, no guarantees". In the past, one of the main obstacles to cryonics was in the initial suspension: the freezing process created ice crystals, which acted like tiny threshing machines, grinding up cells and mangling tissue. Even if you could be resuscitated, your body would essentially be a big bag of mush.
Cryonicists claim to work around this by using a "vitrification" process, turning you not so much into a popsicle as a large glass statue.
Even so, mainstream scientists remain sceptical. "It's not just highly speculative, it's fantasy," says Chris Murphy, a professor of anatomy and histology at the University of Sydney's School of Medical Sciences.
"Vitrification is just more jargon. You are still freezing the body after you use the cryo-protectant, which means that the fine structure of the tissue would be blown to bits."
Some companies offer a "head only", or "neuro", service, the popular perception being that in the brave new world, bodies will be redundant. In 1987, American cryonics pioneer Saul Kent froze the head of his mother, Dora, at Alcor, in Arizona.
But the most famous "neuro" was baseball legend Ted Williams, who had his head chopped off and frozen at Alcor in 2002. A scandal erupted not long after, with Sports Illustrated magazine publishing allegations that the head had been shunted about and cracked 10 times, eventually ending up in a steel can "that resembles a lobster pot". (Alcor denied the allegations.)
Such unpleasantness might explain the studiously low profile of the Neural Archives Foundation, an Australian "head only" operation launched in 2008.
According to founder Philip Rhoades, the NAF has several brains on ice at a commercial cryostorage facility in Sydney. "It's just like a more sophisticated version of oral histories," says Rhoades, who also happens to be the head of the Cryonics Association of Australasia.
"Since I have been actively involved in cryonics, there have been lots of people who have said to me, 'I'm not really interested in being frozen then revived in the future, but I am cranky about spending 80 years accumulating lots of memories and experience and expertise and then having it all disappear when I die'. So we just freeze their brains, with the aim of preserving them until technology allows the information inside them to be extracted."
Rhoades won't allow me to see the NAF facility, much less the brains stored within it. After a while, I begin to doubt NAF's existence. And yet Rhoades has big plans for it.
"We intend to approach Gough Whitlam and Mikhail Gorbachev," he explains, "to see if they would like to participate. I expect they would have a view of history that would be particularly valuable to future generations."
Cryonics generates limitless speculation, particularly when considering practicalities. Say you're revived in the year 2250, for example, how do you support yourself? It's hard enough if you've been out of the workforce for two years, let alone 200.
Answers to such questions usually reveal more about the respondents than anything resembling what a non-cryonicist might call reality. Mark Milton, for instance, plans to put some money in a trust fund to be reimbursed upon reanimation, "just to give me time to adjust to life" and update his skill sets.
Another cryonicist I speak to suggests that you could sell your memories. Tsolakides, on the other hand, posits a future of industrial-scale, state-sanctioned dole-bludging.
"The standard of living in most developed countries now is so high that it can easily support a reasonable population of unemployed. That would have been almost impossible 100 to 200 years ago. What will the standard of living be in 100 years and what ability will it have to support you even if you are unemployed?"
For Matt Fisher, however, such questions are moot. "People are very adaptable," he says. No matter what weird and wacky world you wake up in, you'll get along. Fisher, who is 30, lives with his girlfriend in an apartment in the city, where I meet him one afternoon for a coffee. He is the public face of Stasis, but has the air of a man secretly harbouring knowledge that the world will end in three days.
Fisher is a software engineer with a degree in mechatronic engineering and computer science. He also spent five years in the army. Like all Stasis investors, he is signed up to be frozen, but doesn't anticipate this being necessary, since he believes that in 50 years' time most of the illnesses that kill us will have been cured.
"Cryonics is a stopgap. This procedure is essentially putting you in an induced coma for a number of years until they can find a cure to what's killing you."
It's also, as far as he's concerned, a public service, like Greenpeace or World Vision, both of which he donates to.
"It's not about the money. If we were eventually to make ourselves redundant by having other organisations start offering cryonic services, then that would be fantastic. As far as I am concerned, the more people who sign up and are suspended the better, because every person who does so is a potential life saved."
We sit for a while, watching the traffic, which is incredibly loud. I think: maybe in the future they'll make cars that are soundless. Or maybe they'll come up with a foolproof way for people to live right now, in the present, to stop worrying and be happy. That'd be worth seeing. It might even be worth getting frozen for.
"You really see this happening?" I ask.
"Oh," Fisher says, smiling for the first time. "I would be very surprised if it doesn't."
Sydney Morning Herald