Idly thinking about frozen heads

18.14, Friday 16 Jul 2021

Cryonics is, says Wikipedia, the low-temperature freezing and storage of a human corpse or severed head, with the speculative hope that resurrection may be possible in the future.

It was one of those things that got a lot of airtime in the 80s. Alongside the free market, crop circles, and spontaneous human combustion. Not so much now. But the idea was that people would be frozen indefinitely.

So there are just… frozen heads? Scattered around in freezers in storage lockers?

It turns out, yes. Though not so many. Just a couple hundred.

The storage system:

The new vitrified you now goes into what is essentially a large upright thermos that’s about 10 feet tall and 3.5 feet wide.

You meet your new neighbors-three other vitrified people, each in their respective quadrant of the thermos, along with five people traveling super lean, with no body, whose heads are stacked in the middle column.

(Isaac Hepworth shared this with me on Twitter. Thanks?)

ALSO: the bodies are stored upside-down.

This is in the event that the staff forget to top up the liquid nitrogen (a weekly process) for whatever reason: upside-down patients means it would take six months before the nitrogen boiled off so far that the head would be exposed.

I wonder what sequence of events led to this being standard practice.


The famous image of liquid nitrogen is that somebody puts a rose into a jar, then lifts the rose out and smashes it with a tap.

We discovered during lab at uni that you can pretty safely put your hand into liquid nitrogen, so long as you don’t close your fist and get any under your nails or whatever – the trapped liquid will freeze your flesh. (My bench-mate accidentally dropped in their lighter; they panicked to get it out before the technician came round to find out what was going on, and put their hand in without thinking. Aha they were fine. So we all had a go.)

The liquid nitrogen boils furiously when in contact with your skin, which is obviously much warmer, and this makes a layer of gas which insulates your hand from getting too cold. For the few seconds I held my hand in the liquid (-195 C, -320 F) I could only imagine a dense swarm of angry bees throwing themselves at my skin.

Please do not blame me when you try this yourself and get hurt.

There are some troubling economics in keeping dewars stuffed with bodies (and no bank accounts) topped off with liquid nitrogen basically forever. Instead it might be a better idea to front-load a known cost, paid in advance, and place the body somewhere really cold incurring no annual maintenance fee.

I suggest Halley’s Comet. Basically we cache the vitrified brains temporary here on Earth and then land them on Halley’s Comet next time it appears in 2061. Then every 75 years, as it comes around, there’s an opportunity to either (a) bank more heads; or (b) retrieve the stash. Any society able to unfreeze and reanimate ancient brains will surely be more than capable of running a cometary fetch-and-return mission.

Looking at the stats for life expectancy at birth:

Women born in the early 1980s, or more recently, can expect to see the next return of Halley’s Comet.

Men born in the late 1980s, or more recently, can expect to etc.

Born longer ago and you have to outperform your age cohort. Sorry Gen X-ers.

It’s stuff like this that makes me realise how hard it is to see the motivations of ancient societies. Like, the incredibly preserved people found in peat bogs. Did they too have a belief that they would someday be reanimated?

Maybe the practice of self-mummification is something that appears in every society, in some form or another, throughout history?

SEE ALSO: Sokushinbutsu, the rare Japanese practice of self-mummification by Buddhist monks. As previously discussed.

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