≡ Menu

Cryonics: A Glass-state Time Travel

Frozen to LifeWhat if we gave people a way to escape absolute death at the end of their biologically-allotted lifespans? Wouldn’t many of them jump at it? Of course, and they do, and have been for some time now. Religionists believe that the metaverse (or whatever they wish to call the whole macro-everything, including all the ‘spiritual’ bits) is neatly ordered to deliver them into immortality, just in time. There’s no mechanism for this. It just happens.

That’s an amazing technology – no mechanism, no physical processes, no messy cause and effect to worry about. Religionists, however, don’t consider this a technology. It’s beyond technology and little human tinkerings like that. Something else does the miraculous transmutation from decay-prone physical stuff to eternal ethereal stuff – something evidently a lot smarter than we are.

The religionist route is an unfounded one, to say the very least.

So, what might work if you want to avoid absolute death? First, you need to accept your existence as a host of atoms in particular configurations. Second, you need to think about ways to arrest biological decay, which is just the chemical reactions that happen when the specific set of constraints we call life no longer apply. As Brian Wowk discusses in his essay Medical Time Travel, the Arrhenius equation shows us that chemical reactions stop when temperature drops low enough (-196 °C, just below the boiling point of nitrogen, will suffice for our purposes). Done correctly, with the right concentration of antifreeze-type cryoprotectants, your ‘dead’ brain and its surrounding tissues will undergo ‘glass-state’ vitrification after suspension in liquid nitrogen. Third, armed with this information, you need to act. It’s unlikely that anybody else is going to set up the circumstances for your eventual glass-state transition, so it’s down to you.

In information-theoretic terms, immortality is already possible. It just isn’t much fun, because you can’t be conscious of anything. Bad and extant, good and gone, you hang on the precipice tip of an unclosed infinity symbol. With your molecular interactions halted, nothing happens. Time yawns, and down its craw you silently fall. Nobody knows how to resurrect a person from this immortal abeyance. Some have theories, some even incipient skills and tools, but no one yet knows how to trigger the temporal gag reflex that will cough you out and close the sigil.

But think on it. Think on the potential. The glass-state time-traveler is indeterminate, undissipated, untruncated. Her death was not information-theoretic death. She is orders of magnitude less dead than the conventionally-erased many.

Skepticism about her possible revival amounts to this: because we cannot imagine how she might be revived, we cannot imagine how she might be revived. Might it take nanobots, substrate-independence tech, scanning neuromorphic arrays, advanced connectomic inference, molecular assemblers? Who knows? Perhaps all of these, perhaps none. No matter. She has the luxury of time. Only if abandoned and allowed to decay (or if our race extinguishes itself before the necessary technology arises) will her problem become terminally insurmountable.

This potential solution to the problem of absolute death defies established human conventions of death and corpse-disposal. It triggers ‘cognitive dissonance’ and repugnance reactions. Scientist Leon Kass finds ‘wisdom’ in the human repugnance response. On cryonics, I neither feel it nor find it wise. Post-mortem cryoprotective abeyance is a logical choice. Nevertheless, the heavy blinders of repugnance and convention still screen this from most.  And we ‘cryonicists’ do it to ourselves; we are far from immune to the emotional and existential (for a few, even ‘spiritual’) turmoil our mortal decision may cause.

‘Cryonauts’ are simply mute, liminal dwellers on an unknown threshold. Not living, not dead; not formerly crazy – nor necessarily selfish, altruistic, or pioneering. Just – for the love of hope and reason – not irretrievably lost.


About the Author:

D.J. MacLennanD.J. MacLennan is a futurist author who lives on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. He wrote two chapters of the recently-published cryonics anthology The Prospect of Immortality – Fifty Years Later. His new book Frozen to Life: A Personal Mortality Experiment is due for release at the end of August 2015.


Like this article?

Please help me produce more content:



Please subscribe for free weekly updates:

  • Steve Morris

    I’m currently halfway through “Frozen to Life” and it’s a very good read. Well-written, thought-provoking, and at times positively inspirational, I would recommend it not only to those interested in cryonics, but to anyone interested in life, death and the self.

  • Yes Steve, I was also very impressed by DJ’s writing prowess and style and will try to get him for a Singularity 1on1 interview in September or October…

  • DareJ

    Might one say that a glass-state time-traveler is not dead, just “mostly dead”? 😉

  • advancedatheist

    MacLennan’s description of cryonauts as “liminal dwellers” comes close to my characterization of cryonics as a project of turning death from a permanent off-state into a temporary and reversible off-state. I look forward to reading his book, because the available expository literature about cryonics has gotten way out of date.

  • advancedatheist

    MacLennan’s Scottish background and residence on the Isle of Skye struck me as an interesting bit of synchronicity. I noticed that the Outlander story, which has many female fans, resembles a cryonic revival situation: The heroine Claire Beauchamp Randall finds herself suddenly in a different time (in mid 18th Century Scotland, around the time of the Jacobite Rebellion), where she doesn’t know anyone, she doesn’t understand the social situation, and she urgently needs to find people to connect with who will accept her as a matter of her literal survival. Many people object to the prospect of revival from cryostasis because they might face analogous challenges in “the future,” which makes me wonder if they suffer from social anxiety and if they have problems dealing with social situations in their current lives.
    And, coincidentally, the TV version of this franchise uses music from “The Skye Boat Song” as its opening theme.

  • advancedatheist

    Eventually the “skeptic” trolls like PZ Myers will notice this book and attack its thesis. But these guys haven’t kept up with cryonics as a technology on a progressing frontier. Now prominent figures in the skeptic community – Michael Shermer and Susan Blackmore – have associated with the Brain Preservation Foundation as advisers, so they apparently consider it scientifically defensible to explore brain preservation as a potential survival strategy.

  • Thanks for all your kind and thoughtful comments. In writing ‘Frozen to Life’ I strove to humanize the subject of cryonics. It’s no use if we transhumanists just talk to ourselves; we must get the majesty and boundless potential of life across to others. To do that, we must explain the science and philosophy of transhumanism, but we must also tell our personal stories.

    Some might find “mostly dead” a fair description of the liminal state of cryonauts. But I would argue that, in information-theoretic terms, they are mostly alive.

    Growing up on the Isle of Skye, I often felt like an outsider (if not quite an outlander). Scotland’s obsession with its traditions can be quite unhealthy and stultifying, and I have long sought to break away from that, while still enjoying the other benefits of living here. The romantic angle of Scottish history sells well internationally, but that’s a bandwagon I’ll be standing well clear of.

  • Pingback: Dr. Michael Fratkin on Life, Death and Palliative Care()

  • Travis

    Still catching up on the current technology on this topic, but just want to say. Transfuse me with frogs blood, then ship me to the south pole, then wake me up after the AI utopia arrives (modern day time travel) 🙂 sounds like a sci-fi subplot.

  • Pingback: DJ MacLennan on his Cryonics book "Frozen to Life"()

  • thefermiparadox

    I have the book as well. Still reading.

    “Only if abandoned and allowed to decay (or if our race extinguishes itself before the necessary technology arises) will her problem become terminally insurmountable.”

    Hopefully some highly advanced ETI (biological or AI) visit our planet in the far future and stop by the Cryonics organizations to revive the people around the world that cherish life. Perhaps we should leave a note online or something.

  • Pingback: Frozen to Life Interview on Singularity 1 on 1 - D.J. MacLennan()

  • Pingback: New Cryonics Article on Singularity Weblog - D.J. MacLennan()

  • Pingback: Jose Cordeiro on Longevity & Cryonics: The World Will Be A Better Place()

Over 3,000 super smart people have subscribed to my newsletter: