Why Nanotechnology is Only Half the Story

Cryonics, December 1991

by Thomas Donaldson, Ph.D.

For some time the ideas of nanotechnology have dominated discussion in cryonics. Interpretations of this word have taken many forms, and while I have been vocal about my own interpretation, this article isn’t really about nanotechnology at all. We all know, by now, that brain repair after cryonic suspension will require systems for making highly controlled and complex modifications on scales matching or below the size of our brain cells. To anyone who might actually be revived at some future time, details of technological methods will not matter at all.

For recruiting new Alcor members, nanotechnology has several very attractive features. First, the idea is quite easy to understand; no one needs any special study to see how an ability to operate at nanoscales will provide many possibilities for repairing the damage both of dying and of freezing. Second, it has Authorities to back it: no prospective member must undertake an independent study of obscure (to them) points of neural cell and brain physiology to see that repair lies within the scope of nanotechnology.

Yet properly so considered, all of these tools for repair answer only one side of the question. What about someone who asks whether or not we survive in the first place? Sure, our brain, as a mass of biochemicals, will certainly survive; even individual cells and structures may be found after examination. But right now, in 1991, we are not in a position to prove to anyone that freezing (and I mean freezing down to liquid nitrogen temperatures) will not destroy their memory. The reason: we still don’t know how long-term memory works. If we had structures or chemicals we could point to as invariable clues to memory, then yes, that would be enough. Unfortunately we still lack this knowledge.

Whether you think your memories (in a general way) are so important that you would consider yourself lost (dead?) if stripped of them, or whether you want some kind of continuity even then, this problem must present a big barrier to recruitment. I personally think the circumstantial evidence of memory survival to be extremely strong; other cryonicists (but not every cryonicist) probably share my opinion. But I came to this opinion not by any easy or quick road but by going out and reading in detail about the biochemistry and physiology of memory, not just once but many times, as my understanding (and that of scientists!) grew. To ask potential members to carry out similar studies would more likely put them off us than bring them to us.

Another road also exists, in one way even harder. Some cryonicists became Suspension Members because, they say, eventual discovery of how to revive us “just stands to reason.” After all, the notion that now in the 20th Century, doctors or scientists know enough to say that such revival will be forever impossible is quite simply absurd. If they could describe in detail what happens to brain cells on (protected) freezing, or on dying, or how long-term memory itself worked, the situation might be a little different. But no one anywhere can do any of these things now.

It is as if, faced with a machine which did not work, and about which these doctors and scientists quite openly confess almost complete ignorance, they immediately claim it must be scrapped. (If we treated our cars that way, we’d buy a new car every time we left the headlights on and ran down the battery. . . or maybe even just ran out of gas!).

Personally I think this second route is quite a good argument; but I know it’s not an argument everyone can see. How could the opinion of everybody I know not merely be wrong but absurdly wrong, a tremendous hoot of a falsehood?

They all look so learned and deep . . .

So what is to be done? Certainly anyone who wants to argue for cryonics rather than simply join up needs to study both cryobiology and neural physiology, not once but in a continuing way. That will only solve part of the problem, though. The other part comes from the fact that almost certainly anyone arguing for cryonics now won’t be an Authority. (The thing about Authorities is that many people will simply accept their account of something without question. And if you aren’t an Authority they’ll happily doubt you, even if you’re claiming the world is round and the Earth orbits around the Sun.)

Certainly Alcor publications such as The Cryobiological Case For Cryonics should receive at least as much publicity as works on nanotechnological repair. It simply can’t be assumed that our audience knows any biology at all; yet our essential thesis depends, basically, on evaluation of the effects of freezing and ischemia on memory. We must make sure this material presents the subject as simply as possible while at the same time keeping away from oversimplification. (Yes, I confess to sinning in this respect too). Can 8th Graders read and understand our scientific material?

Finally, of course, we have the Authority Problem. Without any actual Authorities willing to be quoted, we’ll remain in difficulties. These difficulties will even extend to Authorities stating absolute falsehoods to support their deathism (like the problems between Mike Darwin and Alan Trounson, MD, PhD, FRS, etc.).

Eventually, of course, the Authorities who have become members will come out of the closet. I can’t claim perfection for this interim solution: but I would suggest that along with our scientific material we become populists in science. That is, we openly advocate the ability of literate people to learn this stuff and reach their own independent judgments; we try to explain and show to people, constantly, that these subjects are not difficult or beyond their understanding; and finally, we provide bibliographies, both for those who want surveys and those who want to look at the boundaries of research.

Finally, with this last in mind, here is a “first cut” (further suggestions wanted!):

As a basic description of our own physiology and anatomy, including our brains and nerve cells:

  • William S. Beck, Human Design, HBJ Publishers, 1971

For biochemistry, including what was known at that time about cell physiology (the difference between these two gives an idea of what’s happened in the last 20 years):

  • Albert L. Lehninger, Biochemistry, Worth Publishers, 1971
  • Frank B. Armstrong, Biochemistry, 3rd ed., Oxford U. Press, 1989

For neuron and brain physiology, at a level deeper than elementary introductions, there is no book or review which covers those issues related to cryonics and only those. Here are some books which contain such information:

  • Eric R. Kandel, Cellular Basis Of Behavior, W.H. Freeman & Co., 1976 (This book was written before Kandel’s discoveries about LTP).
  • Dale Purves and Jeff W. Lichtman, Principles Of Neural Development, Sinaner Associates, 1985
  • David F. Lindsley and J. Eric Holmes, Basic Human Neurophysiology, Elsevier, 1984

Finally, the cryobiological issues remain very important. The Alcor review The Cryobiological Case For Cryonics summarizes the needed material quite well; at the same time, outsiders to cryonics will probably simply refuse to read it as a reference. My suggestion here is that first, anyone wishing to argue the case for cryonics should familiarize themselves with this review, and second, they should not stop there but go on to read as many of the scientific papers cited there as they can, for themselves.

For anyone who has never tried this before, here are some suggestions. First, never expect a public library, no matter how good, to contain these papers. The best procedure would be to visit the nearest public university. At least one of their library branches will subscribe to these periodicals and allow you to photocopy the relevant articles. If all else fails, and only then, should you go to your city’s public library and request copies on InterLibrary Loan (receiving them will take some time).

As for reading a scientific paper in these areas, I would simply say that you should not expect it to read like a novel. Just jump in. If you find words that you don’t understand, you can usually simply look them up (not in regular dictionaries, but in technical dictionaries. If, after all, no one expects a description of auto repair without special vocabularies, how could we expect discussions of neurons to be different?). Many public libraries at least have these dictionaries. You may wish to read the paper there rather than at home. If you want to read them at home, you might visit local used bookstores, where used dictionaries and other reference material of only a few years ago are on sale.

Not only this, but you will soon find that the number of technical words you’ll have to learn to understand these papers isn’t really all that large. It’s not as if you have to learn Chinese in order to understand. Even more than that, ever afterwards, you will have learned how to read such papers for yourself. Congratulations: you’re now free from the interpretations of newsmen or other reporters. You can find new discoveries and make your own judgments about them.

Finally, no argument for cryonics can be complete without study of this material. Nanotechnology may offer many future wonders; but anyone who tries to argue cryonics without a biological understanding too, hides a central problem, either from himself or from his audience. Sooner or later these falsehoods will come back to them.