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Inventions, discoveries

Shortly after midnight on Friday, 11 December 1987, in California, 83-year-old Dora Kent stopped breathing. Then, with no qualified doctor present, her head was removed from her body and frozen using liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -320ºF.

    Yet Mrs. Kent is just one of an increasing number of Americans who are being “suspended” when they die, in the hope that one day medical science will be able to bring them back to life and cure what killed them. Like many people Mrs. Kent chose to have only her head frozen – after all, a new body could be attached to her head when the time to thaw came round. “You can throw away the computer but if you lose the disc you’ve lost everything.”

    This freezing process – known as cryonics – begs many questions, and provides few of the answers. Yet commercial companies such as Alcor in California have a membership which is steadily increasing. Over 300 people in America have signed up, although only 20 people and 6 pets have been suspended to date. The story goes that Walt Disney is suspended somewhere in America, and Michael Jackson has booked his place.

    Although some people simply regard this trend as just another attempt in the Americans’ search for immortality – the next logical step after the jogging, the aerobics, and the healthy eating – others have described cryonics as “ the most important science anyone can be engaged in” and say it gives them a broader perspective on the world. They believe that if everyone knew they were going to be around in the next century then they would try far harder to solve the global problems of pollution and nuclear war. A noble thought, perhaps, but what about overpopulation? Cryonicists have an answer to that, too. By the time the technique is commonplace there will be a new world with innovative housing, either underground or in space colonies, they claim.

    For those who are convinced by all these arguments, the next question is how feasible the procedure is, and there is yet no firm scientific evidence to prove that thawing of human organs could take place without too much damage being done. This whole area remains hypothetical and difficult to test, although experiments in which a cat’s brain was frozen and thawed suggest that the brain does remain viable. But even if a human brain was successfully thawed nobody knows what would happen to the memory. And what would be the point of having an old head on a young body if it has no memory of a previous life and past experiences? After all, our memory is what makes us uniquely human.

    One final question remains. Why would anyone want to come back for a second or even third life-cycle? Emilia Marty in the opera The Makropoulos Affair knew the secret of eternal life but she also knew it to be a formula for a world-weary and loveless existence. By the time she was 337 she had had enough. For most of us one lifetime is enough.


1. Agree or disagree with the following statements, giving your own opinions and reasons.

a)     If you were reanimated it would be enough just to be a physical copy of who you were before – the memory is not so important.
b)     If cryonics became more accepted it would give people “a broader perspective on nature”.
c)     Cryonics is human vanity, and is going against nature.
d)     Medicine will never be sufficiently advanced to return people to life and cure the illness they died of.

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