Where will you go when your turn comes? To be buried in the earth's embrace? Finely ground to a powder in an ornate um? Or... frozen to -197 degrees Celsius in a giant liquid nitrogen-filled Thermos flask, in the hope of being resurrected to a new youthful and exciting life when medical advances allow it?
Cryonics, a technique that cools down a deceased person's body temperature to the point where physical decay stops, is based on the belief that medicine will find cures to diseases and aging that will restore health and herald an open-ended life span.
Life-suspension services appeared in the early 1960s, but are available only in the United States. However, they may well become an option for Russians in the next couple of decades thanks to a tiny group of Russian scientists.
Igor Artyuhov, a medical cybernetics researcher at the President's Medical Center in Moscow, is convinced Russians will fall for the Big Freeze when economic conditions improve.
"We are ready. We know the methods, the equipment is not a problem, it's quite cheap, compared to the United States, and we have highly qualified scientists. In theory, we are at the level of the United States. But it all depends on investment. In Russia right now, it's not possible to raise funds. If we had investors, it could happen in one year, even less," he said.
Artyuhov's independent research in cryonics, which he calls "his hobby," focuses on the cryonic suspension of human organs, a procedure that could reduce the waiting lists for transplants, he said.
"Take the heart of a corpse, freeze it for 100 years, then revive it and transplant it," he explained. Simple. However, he said it is not possible to complete these experiments for lack of funds. An appearance by Artyuhov on Russian television channel ORT has not helped attract investors, and neither has his contacting business representatives.
Public ignorance and skepticism are another hurdle. Most people know little of cryonics outside of what they have seen in science-fiction movies. And the cryobiologist Arthur Rowe, who said that "believing cryonics could reanimate somebody who has been frozen is like believing you can turn hamburger back into a cow," has many followers. Artyuhov rejects Rowe's analogy as invalid. "Some vertebrates can survive freezing, but no vertebrates can survive grinding," he said.
U.S. companies offering cryonics services do raise the issue of resuscitating patients. While on the whole their tone is optimistic and reassuring, they also state the facts: In short, the reviving part of cryonics has never been performed successfully on a person, human organ, or even on mice. So it has never been proved that it can work. Current medical technology cannot reverse the cellular damage caused by death, on which revival depends. According to experts at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, it is still impossible to predict when cell repair capabilities will be developed.
However, experts say there are good reasons to believe that medicine will eventually be able to perform cell repair. First, because of past breakthroughs, which were previously deemed impossible (cloning, for example). Then, as Artyuhov said, it is already possible to freeze and revive a few millimeters of human and animal tissue, and he said insects had already been successfully cryonized. Medical centers and sperm banks routinely freeze and revive, respectively, embryos and semen.
The most credible possibilities are in the fields of cloning and nanotechnology, a science that seeks to build microminiaturized "machines" that will be injected into the body and programmed to repair cellular damage and other diseases. Research in these areas is in full swing and already giving results. Interest in them is high, and so funding follows.
U.S. cryonics companies stress that they take extra care to ensure that they will still be in business when the time comes for revival. The Cryonics Institute's web page says: "We have a unique, proven track record of financial security and stability."
However, their contract procedure page includes: "Much of the agreement is devoted to disclaimers, limitations of liability, and statements that the member's estate and relatives will have little or no recourse if CI or its employees make mistakes, even through negligence. The reason is obvious. If we leave our organization open to a lawsuit on any basis whatsoever, it would not merely put our assets at risk, but also the lives of every patient and member. We simply can't take that risk."
Fees at American cryonics centers average $30,000 to $150,000, depending on the procedures, infrastructure and whether the whole body, the head or just the brains are cryonized. According to the Cryonics Institute, there are no further charges, and "the bulk of the money is invested, and the return on the investment pays for ongoing care for as long as necessary."
The procedure, which involves replacing the deceased's blood and body water with a cooling solution and agents that will prevent biological deterioration (cryoprotection), can be performed with minimal equipment widely available in Russia.
"Cryonics services in Russia could be more effective than in the U.S.," Artyuhov said. "For a start, they would be cheaper."
Liquefied nitrogen, the gaseous element in which the patient is placed, is already cheap and common in the West. In Russia, though, it costs mere kopecks, and is widely produced throughout the country. For instance, both the Kislorodnyi factory in Balashikha in the Moscow region and the nearby NPO Cryogenwash enterprise produce cheap liquid gases and machinery used for cryonies.
Russia's vast resources of highly qualified scientists could also make cryonics a cheap commodity. However, although there are about 100 individuals interested in cryonies in Russia, nobody is actively practicing it. Out of those 100, only 20 are exchanging information and hoping to introduce services in the country. A couple of them are in Moscow.
These cryo-fans are in contact with organizations in the United States, such as the Arizona-based Alcor Life Extension Foundation and the Cryonies Institute in Michigan. Some have gone a step further. Yury Pichugin, a cryobiologist from Kharkov, Ukraine, left last January for the University of California at Los Angeles.
But it is from those small ranks that bold ideas have sprung. Such are those of Mikhail Soloviev, a computer gerontologist at the N. N. Petrov Research Institute of Oncology in St. Petersburg, who has been interested in ageing since childhood.
In his Laboratory of Cancerogenesis and Ageing, he has designed "Cryofarm," a project to realize inexpensive cryonics services in Russia. It goes as follows: In an isolated area in the country, set up a farm in which you build burial facilities for cryonics patients and gather longevity enthusiasts. Then, make them tend the patients and run the farm as a self-sustaining entity, i.e. an agricultural commune of sorts.
Such a system would bring the costs down to $1,000 to $2,000 per person if 25 to 50 people enroll, according to Soloviev. These are estimates for the keeping of brains or the whole body, depending on the program's success. He estimated the costs for running the facility at $20,000 to $50,000, stressing that it depends on the actual conditions. But having both the staff and "patients" in one location guarantees low costs.
"If things go right, it will happen in 10 years. In 20 years, it's even more likely. But if we had just one really interested person who would invest, we could start in one year and a half," he said.
The program also depends on the creation of a shareholder investment fund which would receive investments from private individuals and organizations.
"Whether it will be through Cryofarm or something else, it's hard to say at this time, but it will happen," he said.
So, Soloviev is ready, with a web site and all (http://cryonics.euro.ru).
But what will happen to your dusha, or soul, in all this? Will it be reanimated too? According to Soloviev, we may rest in peace. "On the religious level, I don't see a reason that would prevent the 'return' of the souls," he said. "And moreover, it's only God and nobody else, who can reap them."
So, where will you go?...