The growing popularity of cryonics is evidenced by an article in the September 2001 Scientific American titled “Nano nonsense and cryonics.” While hardly a flattering title, the first paragraph is worse:
Cryonicists believe that people can be frozen immediately after death and reanimated later when the cure for what ailed them is found. To see the flaw in this system, thaw out a can of frozen strawberries. During freezing, the water within each cell expands, crystallizes, and ruptures the cell membranes. When defrosted, all the intracellular goo oozes out, turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.
Hardly an appetizing description, and in fact totally inaccurate. Alcor has for years perfused cryoprotectants through the vasculature system of the brain (not easily done with a strawberry) which greatly reduce ice formation. In the prior year (in 2000) we adopted new cryoprotectants and ice blockers which effectively eliminate ice formation in a process called “vitrification.” No ice, no ice damage, no runny mush.
We were somewhat perturbed by Scientific American‘s grossly inaccurate description, but attributed it to simple ignorance. Ralph Merkle, an Alcor Board member who was mentioned in the article, submitted the following “Letter to the Editor” to correct their oversight:
While your deification of me as a God of “nanocryonics” [September 2001 Scientific American, page 29, “Nano Nonsense and Cryonics”] was most gratifying, your claim that cryonics won’t work because the human brain is like a strawberry was puzzling. Alcor perfuses cryoprotectants and iceblockers throughout the brain via its vascular system (not found in a strawberry) effectively eliminating ice formation in a process called “vitrification.” The ice that damages a frozen and thawed strawberry isn’t present.
As described at www.merkle.com/cryo, cryonics is an experiment in the most literal sense of that term. If future medical technology some decades from now restores good health to those in suspension at Alcor, then cryonics will be judged a success — which I think is the most likely outcome. Until then, we must decide between joining the experimental group or the control group without the benefit of knowing those ultimate results. We can gain insight into the likely outcome by informed discussions — but strawberry brains add little to our understanding.
Ralph C. Merkle
Alcor Board of Directors
Much to our surprise, Michael Shermer, the author of the piece, responded in an e-mail:
I am well aware of the vitrification process but dropped that discussion for space limitations (I only get 800 words) and because it is so new. Even FM 2030 [F. M. Esfandiary] did not benefit (if that is the right word) from the process.
Shermer published a story on cryonics in a widely read (and once reputable) magazine and deliberately and knowingly lied about one of the most central issues in the field: the extent of ice damage. Not only that, he casually sent us e-mail confessing the fact!
Sadly, this utter indifference to the truth is not uncommon among “critics” of cryonics. Keep this in mind when you hear anyone claim that cryonics won’t work. It might save your life.
With this evidence of utter disregard for mere facts, we felt that any responsible publication would wish to correct the error — which is hard to do in print but easy to do for a web page. So we sent Scientific American the following e-mail:
Date: Wed, 05 Sep 2001 13:20:34 -0700
From: “Ralph C. Merkle”
Subject: Request correction to “Nano Nonsense and Cryonics” web page
Your article titled “Nano Nonsense and Cryonics” by Michael Shermer said in its first paragraph:
“Cryonicists believe that people can be frozen immediately after death and reanimated later when the cure for what ailed them is found. To see the flaw in this system, thaw out a can of frozen strawberries. During freezing, the water within each cell expands, crystallizes, and ruptures the cell membranes. When defrosted, all the intracellular goo oozes out, turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.”
The Alcor Board was concerned that this description was materially inaccurate and seriously damaging to Alcor because it omitted any mention of vitrification.
We became more concerned when we discovered the omission was deliberate (see the e-mail from Shermer that follows).
Over a year has passed since the suspension of F. M. Esfandiary mentioned by Shermer, and all six Alcor suspensions since then have used the new vitrification process.
While it is not possible to correct the printed copies of Scientific American that have already been distributed, it is possible to correct the web page. We request that you add the following editor’s note after the first paragraph of the story on that page:
[Editor’s note: Alcor (www.alcor.org) has recently adopted new cryoprotectants and ice blockers that are perfused throughout the brain via its vasculature, effectively eliminating ice damage in a process called “vitrification.”]
We would appreciate your prompt attention to this matter, as with every passing hour more and more people are reading your web page with its deliberately inaccurate description of the effect of Alcor’s procedures on the brain.
Ralph C. Merkle
Alcor Board member
We have not heard from them since, and have seen no correction to their web page.