Author Archives: pjc1824

Valencia: Citizens of Anywhere

Citizens of anywhere

Globalisation has turned citizenship into a commodity. Matthew Valencia went shopping for a new passport and found bargains to be had


Jalal is an Iraqi telecoms executive with fluent English and a Harvard degree. His wife is a surgeon. Well-off by any standards, they have always loved to travel, and have a particular fondness for Lake Como in Italy. But their Iraqi citizenship has often caused them visa problems. So, a few years ago, Jalal (not his real name) and his wife applied to become nationals of a second country: Antigua. After ten months of form-filling and “due diligence” (background checks and the like), they ploughed several hundred thousand dollars into property and a development fund on the Caribbean island, and in return got passports which entitle them to visa-free travel to 130 countries, including most of Europe. They send the citizenship consultant who helped them become Iraqi-Antiguans a card whenever they are in Como, to show their continued gratitude.

Francesco Corallo went one better in the Caribbean, for very different reasons. An Italian businessman on an Interpol most-wanted list, he bought himself a diplomatic passport from Dominica and tried to claim diplomatic immunity on the grounds of being the island’s permanent representative to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation. He is now in custody in St Maarten, a tiny Dutch territory in the Caribbean, facing extradition to Italy on charges of tax evasion and bribing politicians.

One a meritorious executive looking to overcome travel barriers erected with others in mind, the other a wanted man: both are customers of the passports-for-cash business. Providing citizenship or residence permits in return for a financial contribution generally gets a bad press for offering a perceived back door to criminals, but, like offshore finance, it spans a wide ethical spectrum. How much is black and how much white is anyone’s guess because data are patchy. Peter Vincent of Borderpol, a border agents’ association, estimates that perhaps 1% of the industry’s clients are human-rights violators, money-launderers or other fugitives from justice, and the other 99% mostly jet-setters or “doomsday preppers” (from countries that are politically unstable or threatened by climate change).

Christian Kälin, chairman of Henley & Partners, a consultancy, estimates that several thousand people spend a combined $2bn or more a year on adding a passport or residence permit to their collection. The largest sources of custom are China, Russia and the Middle East. Demand is rising fast, says Eric Major, who helped pioneer the industry while at HSBC, a bank. The number of clients from emerging markets whose net worth ranges from $1m-100m is growing at 15-20% a year, he reckons; for them, a few hundred thousand dollars is a bargain for the perks bestowed by an extra nationality. Instability is boosting demand: more South Africans are looking for second passports, for instance, because the number of visa-free destinations they enjoy with their own has shrunk under the prickly government of Jacob Zuma. So is terrorism: citizens of some rich countries (especially America) want a different passport when travelling or working overseas.

Supply has risen to meet this demand. Between 30 and 40 countries have active economic-citizenship or residence programmes, says Kälin, and another 60 have provisions for one in law. Some demand a straight cash donation, others investment in government bonds or the purchase of property. Some take a longer-term view of the potential economic benefits, offering passports to entrepreneurs who will set up a local company and create a minimum number of jobs. The required investment ranges from upwards of $10,000 (Thai residence, for instance) to more than $10m (fast-track residence in Britain). In some countries the original investment can be withdrawn after several years.

Caribbean nations are particularly accommodating. The islands’ colonial past means that they tend to have wide visa-free access; their small size means that rich countries haven’t felt the need to restrict their citizens’ access; their poverty means they need the cash. St Kitts and Nevis helped pioneer the business over a decade ago, after the removal of European subsidies clobbered its sugar industry. It has since sold more than 10,000 passports at $250,000 or more a time – a sweet earner for a pair of islands with 55,000 people and GDP of $1bn. Neighbouring Dominica pumps out passports at an estimated rate of around 2,000 a year for as little as $100,000 a time. Vince Henderson, Dominica’s UN ambassador, described the scheme as a “lifeline” after the island was hit by Tropical Storm Erika in 2015. In 2017, $148m of the country’s budget of $340m will be raised by the citizenship-by-investment programme. Antigua’s prime minister has said its passports-for-cash programme helped it avoid defaulting on its debt. Pacific islands are also touting for business in the hope of patching up weather-beaten public finances. Vanuatu even throws in goodies with its passports, including a free shell company and bank account.

The industry’s biggest leap forward was the entry into the game in recent years of European Union countries, notably Malta and Cyprus. Cyprus advertises “EU citizenship within a few months”, with all the perks, including Europe-wide health care, and with no requirement to live on the island or pass history or language-proficiency tests. The tax benefits are alluring, too. The price is fairly steep: €2m, to be invested in securities or property. The programme explains most of the Russian- and Chinese-owned villas popping up across the island.

Malta is cheaper: at least €650,000, with another €25,000 per spouse or child. But it is also more rigorous. The vetting process takes a year or more, and around a third of applications are said to be rejected. A single contribution can exceed what the average Maltese pays in income tax over a lifetime. The government has approved more than 1,400 applications. The programme limit (in theory) is 1,800.

Around half a dozen other countries are looking to get in on the act. Having failed to get a programme off the ground a few years ago, Montenegro – which could join the EU by 2022 – has just relaunched it. St Lucia recently joined the fray, offering a passport and visa-free travel in return for various investment opportunities. But the industry is troubled by its “optics”. Iranian sanctions-busters have been caught with St Kitts passports in their pockets; Jho Low, a suspect in the huge corruption scandal around 1MDB, a Malaysian fund, had one too, say American investigators. “Processing more than a few hundred a year in such small, resource-constrained countries is sure to result in slippage in terms of who you accept,” says a consultant familiar with the Dominica programme. The OECD has identified citizenship-for-sale schemes as a possible loophole in the fight against international tax evasion. Anti-corruption officials worry they may foster graft, particularly in micro-states, where oversight of officials running schemes is typically flimsy.

St Kitts is trying to regain credibility. Under international pressure, the government recalled thousands of passports and issued new, more detailed ones that made it harder to conceal the holder’s identity. That drastic action was prompted by Canada’s decision to rescind visa-free travel for Kittitians and Nevisians (it has since withdrawn the privilege from Antigua, too). Keen to show it is changing its ways, St Kitts hired an international risk-management firm to audit its programme.

Small-island schemes are not alone in attracting the wrong sort of headlines. Rich countries tend to offer residency instead of (or as a first step to) citizenship. The largest of those, America’s EB-5 programme, has a chequered history. It gives several thousand foreigners a year the right to live and work in the country if they invest $1m – or half as much in a “targeted” high-unemployment zone – and create at least ten jobs. Several projects have been exposed as frauds. The use of EB-5 by Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, to lure Chinese investors into his family’s development projects has also tainted the programme. Some senators want it scrapped. Congress is due to decide soon whether to extend it. Rich countries are keen to draw a sharp line between themselves and overt citizenship-sellers, but “the difference is increasingly one of degree”, says Jason Sharman, a professor of international relations at Cambridge University: since the global financial crisis, half of all OECD countries have started selling some sort of visa, residency or citizenship permit. In Britain, the more the investor shells out (up to a maximum of £10m), the faster the track.

In the middle of a late-afternoon interview in a suite next to the conference hall of the Grand Kempinski Hotel, Geneva, Christian Kälin stopped to order some bananas. Back-to-back meetings, he explained, meant he had had no time to eat. When in London, he spends much of the time at the same table in a dark corner of the restaurant at Claridges, a swanky hotel, hosting one client or contact after another.

As the passport industry has grown, it has gone upmarket. It used to be dominated by small firms hawking their wares through classified ads in business magazines or developers selling beach houses with residence rights attached. These days it is part of the business of serving “high net-worth individuals”. Providers range from international consultancies such as Henley, Kälin’s company, to banks with big private-wealth operations, including UBS as well as HSBC. Canadian banks are active too, having cut their teeth at home: Canada was an early seller of residence, inspired by a scheme in Quebec, popular with Asians and Iranians, that helped lift the province’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s.

More recent entrants include big accounting firms, such as KPMG and BDO, and law firms. Mischcon de Reya, a high-end London law firm, offers a suite of “VIP”-branded services, including “VIP Student”, and a “holistic service” for those looking actually to move with their new residence rights, “to ensure a seamless transition to the UK for you and your children”. This includes a concierge service for everything from buying school uniforms to decorating a new property.

Kälin cut his teeth selling residence in various Swiss cantons and Canada, along with a smattering of Austrian passports. His big break was persuading St Kitts to allow Henley to rewrite its citizenship laws and design and market its passport programme. Several struggling Caribbean economies followed – including Grenada as well as Antigua and Dominica. Henley picks up fees for advising both private clients on citizenship planning and governments on setting up their programmes. In some cases, it gets a cut of each successful application. (The firm does not disclose revenues.) “If you operate globally, you have to have more than one passport,” Kälin says, but declines to reveal how many passports he holds himself.

As it goes upmarket, the industry is rebranding and euphemising. In 2014 some of the big firms formed a trade association, the Investment Migration Council (IMC), which holds events and publishes weighty reports designed to increase credibility in the eyes of regulators and the media. It insists it is not in the “passports for sale” business, but in “CBI” (for “citizenship-by-investment”) or, even more legitimate-sounding, “investor migration”. Consultants talk of “facilitating global talent mobility”. Last year the IMC joined Transparency International, an anti-corruption group, to produce a critical report on Hungary’s residence-for-cash programme, whose benefits seem to have gone to intermediaries rather than the taxpayer. Kälin says the IMC is “about setting standards. It’s like oil: do we want to be Norway or Nigeria?” Critics say he uses the association to plug countries whose programmes Henley helped craft and bash those it didn’t. He denies this.

Some of the rebranding effort has gone into developing an intellectual justification for selling passports. Kälin argues that ideas about what forms the basis of citizenship have constantly evolved. To view it as being purely about ius soli (“right of the soil”, ie, for those born in the territory) or ius sanguinis (a blood link) is outdated. Kristin Surak, a migration specialist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, notes that the European Union Observatory on Democracy’s citizenship database lists 27 grounds for acquiring citizenship. Why shouldn’t ius pecuniae be among them? It has been in the past: German and Italian merchants who contributed to empire-building were granted British citizenship in the 18th century.

The most energetic and eloquent proponent of this line of argument is Dimitry Kochenov, a constitutional-law expert at Groningen University who works closely with Kälin’s firm, for instance on a global quality-of-citizenship index. A tousle-haired Russian known for his quick wit, bow ties and garish trousers. Kochenov is a “rock star” of the citizenship-by-investment world, says Stéphanie Laulhé Shaelou, a fellow academic.

At a recent IMC conference in Geneva, Kochenov’s zeal was unmistakable as he chaired the opening session. “We are piercing tiny holes in the fences erected by nation states,” he proclaimed. “Our industry’s simple goal is to re-unite the world, and we should be proud to profit from it…We help people cross barriers and contribute to the societies of their choice.” He worries that populism and nationalism are raising those barriers. Brexit and Donald Trump’s ban on travellers from several Muslim-majority countries are the current bêtes noires of the passport-selling fraternity.

Kochenov did not go into the causes of the rise of nationalism, but some of them were sitting in the conference hall of the five-star Grand Kempinski, applauding his speech. Those expensively suited purveyors of passports to plutocrats embody – and encourage – the footloose globalism that has helped spark a nationalist backlash. In the eyes of many less fortunate souls, they enable the global elite to slide unimpeded between countries, moving on when things get tricky, taking what they can get and often giving nothing of themselves except money in return. The industry has to wrestle with the widely held view that citizenship is not purely transactional but has an important cultural and emotional component too. The idea that it can be bought sits uncomfortably with the belief that a sense of belonging matters. While people are keen on foreigners’ cash if it is likely to help the nation’s bills or fuel its economic growth, they feel uneasy about their government selling citizenship in the same way as they feel queasy about offering it to a foreign athlete with no connection to the country, solely to boost its medal count in the Olympics.

On this view, citizenship shouldn’t just be a passport: it should be a commitment as well, carrying not only rights but also responsibilities. The typical passport buyer is unlikely to settle, will care little about her new country’s politics and will have no interest in defending its values. Unless her new citizenship is American – the United States is particularly hot on extracting taxes from all its citizens – she may well pay her new nation no taxes. The normal means of acquiring citizenship acknowledges that there is a cultural component: naturalisation typically takes years and requires an applicant to establish a real connection to their new country. An industry whose main purpose is to allow people to skip those queues does not.

The citizenship brokers counter that hostility towards flogging passports is born of reflex nationalism; some people just can’t abide the concept of global citizenship. Buying a short cut to citizenship, they argue, is no different to splashing out for speedy boarding or a first-class bed on a plane – and more socially useful, since it shovels cash towards poor countries. Why shouldn’t a passport be just another commodity, if neither the government issuing it nor those already carrying it have no problem with that?

These complex sentiments about nationality are making themselves felt through tighter regulation. The European Commission says it will look more closely at passport-selling. It blessed the Maltese and Cypriot schemes, but with reservations. Malta won approval after promising to ensure applicants would be forced to establish a “genuine connection” with the island. But the definition is elastic. Kim Marsh, a former police investigator now with Exiger Diligence, a compliance firm, points to rising public scrutiny of how businesses deal with “politically exposed persons” and other rich but potentially disreputable clients. He predicts that citizenship consultancies will be forced over time to “become reporting agencies, as banks have with tax”.

Tighter regulation is hitting Chinese demand. Although China does not allow its citizens second passports – those who buy them have to be discreet, for instance by keeping their other passport in a safe-deposit box in Hong Kong – the Chinese are big buyers of most schemes. They snap up around 80% of America’s EB-5 permits. But there are signs demand is softening, says Larry Wang of Well Trend, one of the largest of China’s 1,000 or so legal immigration consultancies (there are perhaps ten times as many without licences). Rising living standards at home are part of the explanation, as are tighter currency controls.

Yet hostility to the industry is not necessarily improving outcomes for the countries involved. It may be reducing the benefits to the sellers. One reason for schemes involving investment rather than cash is that a straight sale “lays bare that it’s a naked transaction”, says Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University. But a passport-for-cash deal is normally better for the country that is issuing the passports: unlike EB-5-style investments, the government can be sure the money is really there and that it won’t be withdrawn later.

For the industry, though, the prospects are good. Kochenov is encouraged by the spread in Europe, the Gulf and elsewhere of “inter-citizenship”, where citizenship of one country allows free movement across a larger bloc. A passport which gives access to that bloc is correspondingly more valuable: Malta’s status as an EU member state, for instance, enhances the appeal of citizenship. Kälin reckons that “we’re part of a wider trend in our favour.” He’s probably right. When there is trouble in the world, there will be demand for extra passports; where there is strain on government finances, there will be supply. Neither looks like drying up.

Which passport offers the best perks? Read our buyer’s guide


Hurdle: Teaching High-Level Math to Young Students


Teaching High-Level Math to Young Students

Middle school students worked through problems beyond their grade level when the teacher didn’t tell them it was high school math.
Middle school students discuss math problems written on a blackboard.


There’s been a lot of talk lately about fast-track systems, separating classes based on ability, and promoting earlier and earlier start times for higher concept learning. But some research has also shown that underestimating students means they may not be challenged.

We’ve all underestimated students at one point or another: It can be hard to believe in some students when they struggle to grasp many concepts. What I’ve found through experience, however, is that students can achieve a very high bar, if the teacher is brave enough to set it for them.

I taught at a small, individualized private school that provided some escape from the frenzy of fast tracking, with a math culture that allowed freedom in pacing and curriculum. No one had to specify their expectations for students—instead I figured this out myself and had the power to challenge them as I saw fit. But I’m aware that many readers find themselves in a more constrained teaching situation.

Giving Middle Schoolers High School Math

One class I created for a junior high program was an elementary algebra course. The class included eighth graders along with two seventh graders and even a sixth grader. It covered much of what a typical student sees in high school: solving rational expressions; heavy emphasis on quadratics; graphing linear functions, complex functions, and polynomials; combinatorics; geometric proofs; and multistep equations, to name a few points on the curriculum.

I didn’t tell the students the material was high school level. What I discovered was that they naturally bounced ideas off of each other and connected what they had previously learned within the course to build a knowledge base that was comfortable to each of them personally—this engagement is crucial.

A lot of times I introduced an idea and gave extremely difficult problems but didn’t instruct deeply. Instead, I anticipated that the examples and problems the students worked through by themselves or with a partner would invite them to connect ideas into what made sense in their own mind.

For example, one middle school lesson about the properties of exponents involved providing one property, XAXB=XA+B, and having students use that to methodically derive each following exponent property using only the ones they had previously proved. In one such case, a sixth grader noticed that performing XA/XB was the same as multiplying XAX-B, by definition of inverse (a sixth grader!). She then asked if we could use the first property of exponents to add a positive A power and a negative B power.

At first, I was shocked by the quickness to relate the properties to each other in such a short time (this was all a single one-hour class). Then I realized that I had never phrased the material as outside the realm of what the students were expected to achieve, so to them these concepts were just what typical middle school students should see—they weren’t aware it was high school material, and they were less prone to give up easily. I had been wondering if I was teaching this material a bit prematurely, but the students rose to the challenge.

Another example: Much of my students’ work with rational expressions came down to how much the students could simplify them, to show an increasing familiarity with the process so that down the road this was second nature and more advanced material could be taught without delaying on the “little things”—in fact, an entire week was dedicated to practicing this idea.

Take the basic example of (X-1)/X. The question I posed was whether this could still be simplified further. At first, a common (and incorrect) response was that the variables could cancel, leaving -1. My response was simply to ask for examples of this hypothesis succeeding (without accepting or denying their previous result). The students already knew that a few examples were not enough to prove a conjecture, and that just one situation where the example doesn’t work should be enough to disprove (we were close to discussing the concept of a counterexample).

Suddenly, a seventh grader realized that subtraction and division were not opposite operations, so they couldn’t cancel like they do when solving equations. This was a fantastic revelation, and everyone agreed.

Encouraging Perseverance

These experiences were less about the above-grade level solutions, and more about exploring the concept of reasoning, something that John Holt often highlights in his works, particularly his book How Children Fail, which I cannot recommend enough for math teachers of all levels of experience.

I’m reminded of a story a fellow educator once told me. A teacher performed an experiment with two classes learning the same material. In one, she praised students for their work ethic leading to success. In the other, she placed value on being smart. At the end of the unit, the kids who were told to work hard to be successful were less likely to give up, and they got more out of the class.

My students were not aware that this material was considered above their capacity. Again, I’m aware that we can’t all teach in this way, but the material that does appear in the curriculum can be framed in encouraging ways. It all depends on how we anticipate students’ abilities and on not underestimating them.

Change it up, persevere, explore. Our kids will rise to the challenge.


Granato: How Peter Thiel and the Stanford Review Built a Silicon Valley Empire

How Peter Thiel and the Stanford Review Built a Silicon Valley Empire

by  on

Peter Thiel is a billionaire serial entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and the most prominent supporter of President Trump in Silicon Valley. And in a world where money is power, Thiel is not afraid to wield his power.

On Oct. 28, 2015, several months before Thiel was revealed to be the funder of a lawsuit that bankrupted renegade media company Gawker, which had covered his political activities negatively and outed him as gay in 2007, the Stanford grad (BA ’89, JD ’92) giddily told several Stanford undergraduates in a private meeting at his San Francisco home about his imminent destruction of what he called a “universally reviled organization.” Four undergrads present at the meeting confirmed the story, a seemingly out-of-character — however vague — disclosure from the quite private Thiel. But why would he divulge such a thing to a small group of students? And why was he meeting with them in the first place?


Thiel has become a national figure of controversy for, among other things, claiming that “the extension of the franchise to women…render[s]  the notion of ‘capitalist democracy’ into an oxymoron,” saying, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible,” funding a fellowship that specifically tries to get undergraduates to drop out of college, and donating $1.25 million to Donald Trump’s campaign a week after a tape was released in which the then-candidate discussed how he could grope young female actresses and get away with it.

But 30 years ago, as a sophomore at Stanford, Thiel was a lightning rod for a much smaller-scale reason: He co-founded (with Norman Book ’91) the Stanford Review. The Review, a campus publication often associated with conservatism and libertarianism, was created to, as Thiel wrote in his first editor’s note, “present alternative views on a wide range of current issues in the Stanford community,” “create a forum for rational debate,” and “challenge those who, after reading this paper, still disagree with us…to respond in kind — with rational argumentation and workable solutions of your own.”

Thiel’s articles in The Review and the articles he published as its first editor-in-chief, many of which are available in Stanford Libraries’ Special Collections & University Archives, as well as interviews with over a dozen current and former Review affiliates paint a picture of Thiel as a committed political fighter whose work and outlook today can be traced directly to his college years.

But even further, Thiel’s legacy — and presence — remains with The Review, now an established contrarian institution on campus, to this day. Thiel continues to meet with the publication’s editors, and he is substantially more open with them about his beliefs than he is with the general public, including on highly controversial issues like race and immigration. And across the Bay Area, many of The Review’s alumni, spearheaded by Thiel, have built a relatively small but tight-knit network that extends across three decades and has a net worth that extends into the billions.

Most Stanford students who follow campus politics are quite familiar with The Review. Its often controversial articles are widely shared and discussed, allowing for the paper’s style and voice to become pretty recognizable. Reading over its original volumes from 30 years ago, the paper’s consistency in tone and topic is immediately evident.

In its first few volumes (it generally has two volumes per academic year), The Review condemns a “vocal few” who have monopolized discussion, and it presents itself as an alternative to a stifling, overwhelmingly left-wing campus orthodoxy. In various articles, Thiel and the editorial board critique how the phrase “open-mindedness” seems to them to merely refer to “those who agree with one position.” They advocate that Stanford should focus on “institutionalized liberalism” rather than “the supposed ‘institutionalized racism.’” And they argue that the university should not abolish the then-existing ‘Western Culture’ literature program but rather “actually strengthen the current program’s focus on the West.”

The fate of the ‘Western Culture’ academic program, which was soon to be replaced with a ‘Cultures, Ideas, and Values’ program that mandated more works by female and non-white authors and also mandated more non-white faculty teach in it, was then a major flashpoint of controversy on campus and an inspiration for founding The Review.

The Review presents itself as a renegade paper, calling out perceived left-wing censors on campus while offering itself as a contrarian outlet willing to engage with out-of-fashion ideas and ideologies like conservatism and libertarianism. The paper includes articles about both national political issues as well as campus controversies, some quite somber and some excitedly mischievous.

Having founded The Review at the end of his sophomore year, Thiel was also the paper’s editor-in-chief his junior and senior years, during which he included an editor’s note with each volume, generally reflecting on his vision for the paper as a vehicle for stirring the pot and breaking up politically correct platitudes.

Thiel’s editor’s notes are titled, in chronological order, Stanford Review Is Here to StayOpen or Empty Mind?Institutionalized LiberalismWestern Culture and its FailuresWelcome to the FarmStanford and the Real World, and The Importance of Being Honest. At least one volume is missing from the archive, so presumably he wrote more.

Thiel left Stanford’s campus in 1992, but The Review exists to this day. How has it lasted for 30 years while countless other student organizations have formed and dissipated, often in the span of a single year?

One reason was articulated in the National Review by former Stanford Review staffer Michael New (Ph.D ’02):

Why is it that [campus conservative]  papers like the Stanford Review and the Dartmouth Review have enjoyed continuity while most others have not? The simple reason is that both the Stanford Review and the Dartmouth Review succeeded in developing reliable networks of alumni donors early in their history. Of course, the fact that Review founder Peter Thiel went on to found PayPal has certainly helped the paper’s financial condition. However, the success of Thiel and other undergraduates at developing a solid fundraising base placed The Review on solid financial footing well before the dotcom boom of the late 1990s.

Historically, New is correct that the paper has been quite effective at raising money for a relatively small student publication (a typical volume has around eight to 10 people in editor positions and another dozen or so writers), and Review archives show that the paper had an “Alumni Relations Director” position as early as 1990, only three years after its founding.

The Review is incorporated as a 501(c)3 nonprofit that first filed in 1990 and maintains that status to this day. Its 1997-2010 IRS filings are accessible online through ProPublica’s NonProfit Explorer.

In the IRS filings available, The Review averages donations of about $65,000 per fiscal year, with the bulk of its expenses going to printing and shipping its volumes on campus and to alumni and contributors. (Over the past few years, it has moved online and only occasionally prints issues for the campus.)

The Review also generates income from investment returns and advertisement sales, but donations account for over 97 percent of the publication’s revenue.

Another reason for The Review’s longevity is that, on a campus that has a reputation for being pre-professional, the publication is a locus for debate over politics and ideas. Jennifer Burns, a historian of modern conservatism, believes that the relative lack of undergraduate institutions for political and philosophical conversation at Stanford means that The Review has an outsize impact on campus dialogue. Burns said she has also noticed that, in classes, Stanford students hesitate to claim conservative identity, for fear of peer disapproval.

The Review, by contrast, is unafraid to be judged, taking on campus liberals as well as Stanford’s small but highly vocal far left in spite of frequent (and sometimes vicious and personal) backlash. And while The Review does publish some moderate pieces, its right-wing articles are its historical hallmark and tend to get the most attention.

In recent years, The Review has tackled Western Civ curricula, endowment divestment campaigns, and sexual assault policy, among other hot-button issues.

But although The Review is often described as a “conservative” or “libertarian” paper — and these adjectives are not wrong; the paper has even described itself as “the conservative voice of Stanford” in the past — ideological descriptors do not adequately capture how the modern paper conducts itself or sees its purpose.

Anna Mitchell ’18, the current editor-in-chief, sees the paper “as a voice for thoughtful and contrarian perspectives on Stanford-related issues.” “I don’t see The Review as innately conservative and libertarian,” she said. “I think that The Review’s institutional voice is consistent not because our members hold a particular political view but because they share skepticism toward the status quo of campus political opinions. It happens that college campuses tend to be very liberal, so our arguments are usually more right-wing.”

Asked about what she thought was The Review’s greatest accomplishment, Devon Zuegel ’16, a former editor-in-chief, pointed to a 1995 episode in which the paper successfully sued Stanford over its speech code. The code banned insults based on race and sex, and the Santa Clara County Superior Court struck down the code as “unconstitutionally broad and based on content.” Robert Corry (JD ’94), a member of The Review who helped to bring the case to court, described the victory as — in language quite consistent with The Review’s historical mission statement — “a victory for academic freedom and free speech.”

Virtually every Review and former Review member I asked emphasized the paper’s role as a counterbalance to orthodoxy (Zuegel and Harry Elliott ’18, also a former editor-in-chief, both used the phrase “Devil’s Advocate”) rather than fealty to a particular set of beliefs. Several also noted that the modern Review is ideologically varied, containing not just social traditionalists or techno-libertarians but centrists and liberals as well. Elliott believes that “The Review attracts a particular kind of person. It’s a very particular sort of ‘contrarian’ who’s willing to walk into a room full of people who large numbers of people on campus at least subtly say are hateful.”

The Review takes their contrarian role sufficiently seriously that three former editors noted that it has occasionally published articles over the past few years that the authors themselves didn’t agree with. One former editor disapprovingly referred to the practice as “intellectual dishonesty,” while others saw it as part of The Review’s stated task of representing unpopular thought in campus discourse.

Does The Review have a limit on how far it will go against the grain? In fall 2016, it ultimately decided against sponsoring notorious provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, but the decision was not made lightly. Mitchell, who was against sponsoring Yiannopoulos because she says she “[does]  not believe that being provocative is a virtue in itself and didn’t think that Milo brought enough original thought to justify an invitation,” described The Review as “very internally divided” over the issue.

Elliot Kaufman ’18, a former Review managing editor, criticized Yiannopoulos in the National Review the following summer. Kaufman quoted an “influential editor” of The Review as saying, in favor of an invitation, “Best-case scenario is that the SJWs [Social Justice Warriors, a pejorative term for confrontational and highly vocal leftists on social issues] freak out and we get another Berkeley,” a reference to a riot by militant leftists in response to UC Berkeley’s Yiannopoulos event that injured several people and caused an estimated $100,000 in damages.

Thiel himself has not shied away from Yiannopoulos, meeting with him and contributing a blurbfor Yiannopoulous’ new book, Dangerous: “If you don’t use your freedom of speech, one day you might find that it’s gone. Buy this book while it’s legal.”

While The Review has had a continuous presence on campus since its inception, one former editor admitted that the paper has had periods of lulls in the past, and that in those times he could imagine that Thiel would not have been satisfied with what it was doing.

This is because, although The Review is a student-run publication and Thiel has not been the editor-in-chief since 1989, by no means has Thiel vanished from The Review’s orbit. As one former editor put it, “it’s honestly amazing he still meets with us for dinner every quarter.”

After Stanford Law, Thiel worked as a lawyer at the prestigious, traditional firm Sullivan and Cromwell, which he has often described as a place where everyone inside was trying to get out and everyone outside was trying to get in. He quickly left corporate law and worked as a trader for Credit Suisse, then returned to the Bay Area in 1996 to work in the booming and less constricting technology sector, starting a fund called Thiel Capital Management.

Thiel co-founded payments processor PayPal in 1998 to achieve, as early PayPal executive and former Review editor-in-chief Eric Jackson ’98 has described it, “global currency liberation”; PayPal’s success made Thiel a multimillionaire. He then founded a hedge fund named Clarium Capital in 2002 and co-founded data analysis firm Palantir in 2003. In 2004, Thiel became one of the earliest investors in Facebook; Facebook’s success made Thiel a billionaire. Thiel is an active venture capitalist, having co-founded the firms Founders Fund, Valar Ventures, and Mithril Capital, and he has by all accounts become one of the most powerful and financially successful people in Silicon Valley. Thiel has invested in over a hundred technology companies, many of which have become titans, including LinkedIn, Lyft, Spotify, Reddit, Airbnb, and SpaceX.

He also continues to meet with the undergraduates who staff the paper he founded, generally its editors.

Highlighting both the intimacy and exclusivity of these gatherings, one email invitation to such an event in 2015, shared by a former editor, reads in part: “Hi, We will be having a Review dinner at Peter Thiel’s house next Wednesday…This is not an open invite; please do not talk about this opportunity with anyone else, especially at the [Review staff] meetings.”

Thiel’s influence on the autonomous Review’s on-campus activity should not be overstated: Students are always in control of the paper, and Thiel does not attempt to orchestrate their conduct. The great majority of The Review’s activity involves its independent writing and reporting on the issues of the day and its weekly meetings, which often feature boisterous political debates. (Amy Shen ’18, the current executive editor, says she enjoys the meetings as a place where “you are judged on the basis of your ideas and nothing else.”)

But Thiel does occasionally host dinners and reunions with Review editors at local restaurants as well as his home in San Francisco, give suggestions of issues to focus on, donate money, and de facto lead a burgeoning network of alumni concentrated in Silicon Valley, many of whom have worked with or for Thiel directly.

As one former editor put it, “[Thiel] sees The Review as his people.”

Speaking about Thiel, many Review and ex-Review affiliates insisted on anonymity. They clearly respect him. Mackenzie Yaryura ’17, a former editor-in-chief, says, “my only experience is that [Thiel’s] been really welcoming, really interesting, being willing to answer questions and share knowledge.”

To what degree does Thiel still care about The Review’s activities on campus?

One former editor believed “he obviously had zero interest in getting to know us as individuals. He was there to figure out what was going on on the campus.” Harry Elliott voiced that “to be honest the thing which most Review alums are really interested in, not just or specifically Peter, is: they want to know what the issues de jour are, what the average Stanford student is like, and what we are doing to try and ensure that viewpoints that are usually not heard as heard.” A third former editor agreed that, as Thiel is obviously busy and does not have time to keep up with campus goings-on, that meeting with The Review was a way of staying in touch. Several people agreed that while Thiel is certainly not going to babysit The Review, he does want it to continue with its founding mission.

Thiel tends to reveal much more about his own views and activities with Review affiliates than he does with the public. Mary Carolyn Manion ’19, a former Review editor, attended an event with Thiel where he discussed politics, economics, and technology, including topics like a “network for Trump-supporting Silicon Valley types who were not going to go public…because of the California culture.” Thiel did not elaborate on specific names.

At The Review’s 30th Anniversary event, hosted on Stanford’s campus the January weekend of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Thiel spoke about his involvement in the presidential transition. As per the accounts of six Review editors, Thiel discussed how he had offered to take the lead on developing a spreadsheet to fill jobs in the new administration and claimed to be deeply involved in the transition’s internal workings. (In February, Politico reported that “Peter Thiel’s fingerprints are all over the administration.”) He seemed optimistic about Trump.

At the event, Thiel was asked how he knew that Trump was going to win. After all, wasn’t it extremely risky to go all-in for Trump when he was down in the polls and Silicon Valley strongly supported Clinton? Thiel replied that, two weeks before the election, some of his closest advisors and confidants wondered to him if they had backed the wrong horse and if it was too late to back off supporting Trump. Thiel, according to his own retelling, responded, “Are we allowed any knowledge other than social scientific knowledge?” And he argued that while the polls did seem to indicate that Trump would lose, he was more confident in his personal assessment of how the world works than the polls. Thiel’s confidence, of course, was vindicated when Trump won.

A former editor described Thiel’s response as “very much in character” for him: “On every major platform he’s built in his life, whether fighting a government authority or an upstart competitor, he tends to come up with ideas and dig in deep to them, and he doesn’t walk away.”

In Oct. 2016, shortly after Thiel donated $1.25 million to Trump, Thiel publicly apologized for passages in his 1995 book The Diversity Myth, such as claiming that some alleged date rapes were “seductions that are later regretted,” saying in a statement, “More than two decades ago, I co-wrote a book with several insensitive, crudely argued statements. As I’ve said before, I wish I’d never written those things. I’m sorry for it. Rape in all forms is a crime. I regret writing passages that have been taken to suggest otherwise.” But three months later, during the after party of the 30-year anniversary event at Thiel’s home, according to a former editor, Thiel stated that his apology was just for the media, and that “sometimes you have to tell them what they want to hear.”

Thiel was long perceived as a libertarian, but in recent years, as his support for Trump illustrates, his politics have taken a more futurist-nationalist flavor that critics have described as bordering on authoritarian and white nationalist. Only a few days before Trump’s Inauguration and The Review’s anniversary event, Thiel attended the pro-Trump and heavily alt-right-attended “Deploraball,” which had been in part organized by Jeff Giesea ’97, a former Review editor-in-chief who once worked at Thiel Capital Management.

Also, a former editor relayed to me that Thiel told The Review during the 30th anniversary after party that he is “funding” American Greatness and American Affairs, two ‘Trumpist’ journals founded to provide intellectual ammunition to Trump’s replacement of the movement conservative old guard. Thiel also mentioned that he had met Michael Anton, a prominent ‘Trumpist’ writer who now works as a national security staffer for Trump, in a reading group that focused on philosopher Leo Strauss.

A former editor reported that at the same event in 2015 where Thiel obliquely referenced the imminent destruction of what turned out to be Gawker, he also endorsed cutting immigration to the United States by “80 percent,” but at the same time supported increasing “high-skilled” immigration. Another former editor described Thiel’s views on immigration as “foundationalist”: “He believes that the people who come into a country are the identity of that country, and a decision to change the people who come in irrevocably alters the identity of that country.” (Thiel was born in Germany, and his parents immigrated to the US when he was one; he also lived in South Africa and what is now Namibia for part of his childhood.)

Another former Review editor told me that in fall 2014, also at Thiel’s home, during a discussion of Charles Murray’s controversial book on IQ, The Bell Curve, Thiel wanted to “entertain” the thought of there being a biological reason for racial gaps in test scores. The editor said Thiel cited the ancient Chinese administration, which he described as a situation in which the people who scored higher on tests got more power and were more sexually successful, and he seemed curious about the idea that a civilization could, over time, end up being more intelligent than others.

We contacted Thiel’s office with all the quotes sources attributed to him to see if he would elaborate on or dispute any of them; through a spokesperson, Thiel declined to comment on any of them.

There is another way in which Thiel interacts with Review affiliates: across Silicon Valley, many of them work with or for him.

The “PayPal Mafia,” a term for PayPal founders and prominent multimillionaire executives whose post-PayPal careers include founding and investing in dozens of prominent tech companies, is stacked full of Review alumni, including Ken Howery ’98, David Sacks ’94, and Eric Jackson ’98 (all former Review editors-in-chief) as well as Keith Rabois ’91 (a former Review executive editor), and Premal Shah ’98 (a former Review staffer).

Other early executives at PayPal from The Review include Paul Martin ’04, a Review business manager who dropped out of school to join the company in 2000; Nathan Linn ’93 (a former Review editor-in-chief); Aman Verjee ’96 (another former editor-in-chief); and Norman Book ’91 (a former managing editor and Thiel’s Review cofounder).

In Jackson’s book The PayPal Wars, he describes Martin’s 2003 departure from PayPal: Thiel and Sacks “vigorously tried to convince Paul to change course. Though both officers were duty-bound to try to retain such a valued employee, I sensed they also had a personal desire not to lose Paul. He was the first Stanford Review alumnus to leave PayPal, something Peter took to heart, especially since the ten alumni from the newspaper had played a vital role in shaping the direction of the company.”

While the nine Review alumni above are all significant figures in Thiel’s circle, an alumnus who was then merely an intern at PayPal would turn out to be perhaps Thiel’s most frequent collaborator.

Joe Lonsdale ’03, also a serial entrepreneur and venture capitalist, has been described as “the living embodiment of Silicon Valley” and a “protégé” of Thiel. In 2002, Lonsdale interned at PayPal. After graduating, he worked at Thiel’s Clarium Capital Management and then launched a meteoric career. He has founded or cofounded companies Addepar, Backplane, OpenGov, and Shogun and venture capital firms Anduin Ventures, Formation 8, and 8VC. (Thiel is an investor in Addepar, Backplane and OpenGov, and Thiel and Lonsdale have both invested in several companies including Oculus Rift, Caplinked, Flexport, and Radius.)

But he is best known for being a co-founder, along with Thiel, of data analysis juggernaut Palantir, whose valuation has reached $20 billion. A third co-founder of Palantir, Stephen Cohen ’05, is also a former Review editor-in-chief, meaning that three out of the five founders of one of Silicon Valley’s crown jewels ran the same student newspaper. (A fourth, Nathan Gettings, was a former PayPal executive, and the fifth, Alex Karp (JD ’92), was a social theory Ph.D who knew Thiel from Stanford Law, where they were roommates).

In total, I have identified 23 current and former Review affiliates, spanning the paper’s entire history, who have held positions at Palantir, including a board member (Adam Ross ’95) and the company’s first employee (Alex Moore ’05).

In a PowerPoint presentation giving an overview of The Review, on a slide titled “Perks of Staff,” one of the bullet points listed is “priority at dinners and lunches with faculty and alumni.” Lonsdale has remained particularly involved with the on-campus Review community, hosting lunches and recruiting. Over the summer, an email went out on The Review’s listserv advertising an internship at Argive, a Lonsdale-funded nonprofit, that noted that “[we]  suspect we’ll find some great candidates through the Stanford Review.”

Lonsdale is the co-founder and chairman of a currently 13-person startup, Shogun, where Anthony Ghosn ’15, who has worked at Formation 8 and 8VC, is the co-founder and CEO and Brandon Camhi ’16, who has worked at Thiel’s hedge fund and OpenGov, is the Vice President of Marketing. Both Ghosn and Camhi are former Review editors-in-chief. On Ghosn’s LinkedIn profile, Joe Lonsdale wrote a recommendation that reads in part: “I met Anthony while he was at the Stanford Review and was impressed…I hired him to be my chief of staff when he was a Junior at Stanford.” And when asked about how he had hired employees for Shogun, Ghosn began, “It’s all network.”

Lonsdale has also served as a Board Member of the Seasteading Institute, which Thiel funded, and invested in startups of other Review alumni. He is married to Tayler Cox ’09, now Tayler Lonsdale ’09, a former Review executive editor.

(In 2014, Lonsdale was banned from campus after an undergraduate he had been dating accused him of rape and Stanford found that he had “engaged in sexual misconduct and harassment.” In 2015, “as a result of new evidence that came to light during litigation,” Stanford determined that Lonsdale did not violate Title IX and lifted Lonsdale’s ban. The undergraduate, who had filed a civil suit against him, dropped her suit, and Lonsdale dropped his countersuit.)

In the past seven years, many current Review affiliates or recent graduates have worked or interned at various other Lonsdale properties, especially OpenGov (five affiliates) and Formation 8 (four recent affiliates, plus Gideon Yu ’98, a former Review business manager who is a founding member of Formation 8 and former CFO of Facebook).

Besides Lonsdale, there are a wide variety of connections between Review alumni. With respect to Thiel’s other companies, I have found 14 Review alumni who have worked for Thiel Capital Management and Clarium Capital Management, including several vice presidents; five who have worked for Founders Fund, including a cofounder, Howery; two at Valar Ventures; and three more who worked at PayPal who joined after the first few years. Many other Review alumni have worked at a wide variety of nonprofits Thiel has funded, like The Independent Institute, OpenAI, and the Thiel Foundation; or worked at companies in which Thiel has invested.

Review alumni fill the investor and executive ranks at companies like Yammer and Caplinked. Several Review alumni have published books, including The PayPal Wars, at World Ahead Media, founded by Book and Verjee. Review alumni have been roommates, invested in each other’s companies, and collaborated on political activities; the full spreadsheet of activities I was able to catalogue can be found here.

Overall, I identify almost 200 employment and investing relationships between Review affiliates to 40 different institutions that are founded by Thiel or Lonsdale or otherwise feature multiple Review alumni prominently, virtually all of which are in Silicon Valley.

Of the 58 people who have served as Review editor-in-chief, at least 25 have worked or interned for at least one company founded or cofounded by Peter Thiel or Joe Lonsdale; most of those 25 have actually worked for several. This pattern is, if anything, stronger in recent years: of the last eight editors-in-chief, six have worked or interned for a company founded by Thiel or Lonsdale.

Outside of Silicon Valley, a few Review alumni have worked on the Trump transition team, over which Thiel claimed to have great influence, and now work in Trump’s administration. Two connections have been noticed: the Wall Street Journal reported that Kevin Harrington, a former Review staffer who attended Stanford as a graduate student in the late 1990s and worked at Clarium Capital, worked on the transition at the Commerce Department. ProPublica reported that Candice Jackson ’98, a former news editor who published a book with World Ahead Media, now works in the Department of Education.

I also find that Tristan Abbey ’08, a former editor-at-large who has worked at Clarium Capital and Founders Fund, worked on the transition at the Department of Energy and went on to work as a senior analyst there, and that Paula Stannard (JD ’90), who was an assistant editor under Thiel, was on the transition at the Department of Health and Human Services and now serves as a senior counselor there.

Building a trusted network team is not a passive habit of Thiel’s; it is a mantra he repeatedly discusses in his startup advice book Zero to One. When giving in-person advice to a startup in which he was investing several years ago, Thiel reportedly told the company’s employees to come up with the three smartest people they knew because “we should try to build things through existing networks as much as possible.”

There is an alumni Board of Directors of The Review made up of both recent and veteran alumni; in the past, Thiel has been the chairman (though he is not on the board currently) and David Wallace ’91, Book, and Rabois have each been president. According to his LinkedIn, Verjee has been the Chairman since 2004. The board helps communicate with alumni and signs off on each new editor-in-chief, though the approval is basically a formality. Review members told me that most current members do not really interact with the board specifically.

Alec Rawls (a former econ grad student who dropped out before finishing the degree) wrote for The Review throughout the late 1990s and into the 2000s and was at one point the opinion editor. He has since been on the board for 13 years, including serving as its treasurer. Discussing the board, Rawls (the son of notable moral and political philosopher John Rawls) recalled, “The board has worried at times, especially during the early Obama years, whether the student members were too cowed by Obama’s popularity on campus and were keeping their heads down,” and he claimed that the board has to “monitor the content of The Review, keep track of who is actually conservative and who isn’t, and try to make sure that the members who aren’t actually conservative don’t get the reins of the student organization.”

Rawls also noted, “I met Peter and other first-generation figures [after Thiel left Stanford]  at Review dinners and reunion events, which is one of the great aspects of The Review: that it tries to maintain ongoing connections, which for quite a few Reviewers have turned into important business connections.”

“Of course there’s a Review network,” says Devon Zuegel, “and of course there is a connection between the group’s mission and the types of projects those people go on to do together afterwards! There’s also a Stanford Daily network, a Stanford Triathlon network, an EBF network, and a Stanford in Government network. Each of these organizations has their own goals and style, and that spirit is carried on as people do things with the friends they’ve made there afterwards.”

In interviews, some recent Review editors knew a good bit about the alumni network, but some other editors and many staffers seemed to be only vaguely, if at all, aware of how extensive it is.

The Reviewa complex, heterogeneous, and committed group, was founded with the motto fiat lux (“let there be light”). For 30 years, it has fought Stanford’s liberal and left majority, and over that time it has built a history and network quite impressive for a publication of its size. And in Silicon Valley, Review alumni have built an infrastructure that spans many billions of dollars in both company market value and personal wealth.

One former editor told me, “the guy in charge of The Review [Thiel] has become an icon, and I think we all kind of respect that he continues to meet with us.” As I was concluding an interview, the editor explained to me that he or she could not be quoted directly for various comments because “these people run the world.”

As one of the people who runs the world correctly announced in his first editor’s note 30 years ago, the Stanford Review is here to stay.

Fiat lux.

Click here to read X. The Review: In Their Own Words

Update, Nov. 27, 10pm: The Review’s 2010-2016 tax forms were filed using a Form 990-N (e-Postcard), available here, meaning that the Review had less than $50,000 in revenue during those years. Also, Alec Rawls is listed as the “Principal Officer” from 2013 through 2016.


Andrew Granato ’17 was a contributing editor at Stanford Politics until his graduation in June 2017. He majored in economics and pursued his interests in economics and politics through organizations like Stanford in Government and the Stanford Economics Association. At Stanford Politics, he wrote on a variety of topics, including social mobility and class at Stanford and the Bay Area’s housing crisis. He is currently pursuing a career in academic economics.


Additional on-campus archival research was contributed by Stanford Politics reporters Daniel Ferreira and Emily Katz.

Urban: Why Cryonics Makes Sense

Why Cryonics Makes Sense

We made a fancy PDF of this post for printing and offline viewing. Buy it here.

You’re on an airplane when you hear a loud sound and things start violently shaking. A minute later, the captain comes on the speaker and says:

There’s been an explosion in the engine, and the plane is going to crash in 15 minutes. There’s no chance of survival. There is a potential way out—the plane happens to be transferring a shipment of parachutes, and anyone who would like to use one to escape the plane may do so. But I must warn you—the parachutes are experimental and completely untested, with no guarantee to work. We also have no idea what the terrain will be like down below. Please line up in the aisle if you’d like a parachute, and the flight attendants will give you one, show you how to use it and usher you to the emergency exit where you can jump. Those who choose not to take that option, please remain in your seat—this will be over soon, and you will feel no pain.

What would you do?


When Robert Ettinger was a kid in the 1930s, he read a lot of science fiction, and he assumed that with the world advancing the way it was, scientists would surely have a cure for aging at some point during his lifetime. He would live to see a world where sickness was a thing of the past and death was something people chose to do voluntarily, at a time of their choosing.11← New to WBW? Open these.

But thirty years later, aging and involuntary death were still very much a thing, and Ettinger, by then a physics professor, realized that science might not solve these problems in time for him to reap the benefits. So he started thinking about how to hack the system.

If, rather than being buried or cremated after his death, he could instead be frozen in some way—then whenever the scientists did eventually get around to conquering mortality, they’d probably also have the tools and know-how to resuscitate him, and he could have the last laugh after all.

In 1962, he wrote about this concept in a book called The Prospects of Immortality, and the cryonics movement was born.

The first person to give cryonics a try was James Bedford, a psychology professor who died of cancer in 1967 at the age of 73 and is doing his thing in a vat of liquid nitrogen in Arizona as you read this. Others slowly began to follow, and today, there are over 300 people hanging out in vats of liquid nitrogen.

Now let’s pause for a second. A year ago, I knew almost nothing about cryonics, and my impressions of it were something like this sentence:

Cryonics, or cryogenics, is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

Then I started learning about it. It’s your fault—cryonics is one of the potential-future-post-topics people email me about most, and it’s something at least five readers have brought up in conversation when I’ve met them in person. And as I began to read about cryonics, I soon learned that a lot of the words in my italicized assumption sentence weren’t correct.

So let’s work our way through the sentence as we go over exactly what cryonics is and how it works. We’ll start with this part:

Cryonics, or cryogenics, is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

It turns out that this is like saying, “Wingsuit flying, or meteorology, is the sport of flying through the air using a wingsuit.” Meteorology is the study of what happens in the atmosphere, which includes how wind works, and wingsuit flying is a process that harnesses the wind—and you’d be an odd person if you thought they were the same thing.

Likewise, cryogenics is a branch of physics that studies the production and effects of very low temperatures, while cryonics is the practice of using very low temperatures to try to preserve a human being. Not the same thing.

Next, we have a string of three misleading words to talk about:

Cryonics is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

We’ll address these three words by going through how cryonics works, starting at the beginning.

So you decide you want to be a cryonicist. Here are the steps:

Step 1) Pick a company

There are four major companies that provide cryonics services—Alcor in Arizona, Cryonics Institute (CI) in Michigan, American Cryonics Society (ACS) in California, and KrioRus in Russia. KrioRus is the newest option and quickly up-and-coming, but the two big boys are Alcor and CI (ACS doesn’t have their own storage facilities—they store with CI).

From my perusing, it seems like Alcor is the slightly-more-legit and fancier of the two, while CI (which was started by Robert Ettinger, the guy who launched the movement) is more affordable and gives off more of a mom-and-pop vibe. Both are nonprofit, and each has about 150 people in storage. Alcor has a little over 1,000 “members” (i.e. people who will one day be in storage), and CI has around half that number.

Step 2) Become a member

To become a cryonicist, you need to fill out some paperwork, sign some stuff and get it notarized, and pay for three things: an annual membership fee, a transport fee to get your body to the facility after you die, and a treatment/storage/revival fee.

Alcor’s annual membership fee is about $700, and their transport fee is bundled together with the treatment/storage/revival fee—together they cost $200,000. Alcor gives you the option of ditching your body and just freezing your brain (this is called “neuropreservation”), which brings the price down to $80,000.

CI’s annual membership fee is $120 (or a one-time fee of $1,250 for a lifetime membership) and the treatment, etc. costs $35,000 ($28,000 for lifetime members). This is so much cheaper than Alcor for two main reasons:

First, it doesn’t include the transport. If you live near the facility, you can save a lot of money. If not, you’ll need to go through their partner for a transport contract, which costs $95,000 ($88,000 for lifetime members).

Second, Alcor uses more than half of their large fee to fund what they call their Patient Care Trust. Back in the 70s, there were more cryonics companies, and some of them went bankrupt, which meant their frozen people stopped being frozen, which was a not ideal outcome. Alcor’s trust is a backup fund to make sure their “patients” won’t be affected by something like a company financial crisis.

Step 3) Get a life insurance policy in the name of your new cryonics company

Sounds shady, right? But it also makes sense. Both Alcor and CI are small companies on a pretty tight budget and neither can afford to offer a payment plan to be hopefully paid out by your estate or your relatives. On the patient end, unless you’re rich, cryonics fees are huge, and a life insurance policy guaranteed to pay your full cryonics fee forces you to save for this fee throughout your life. For young people, even sizable life insurance policies are pretty cheap—with CI, you could be totally covered for as little as $300/year ($120 annual membership, $180 life insurance policy to cover the main fee). Even for Alcor’s more expensive package, costs shouldn’t exceed $100/month.

Those fees aren’t nothing, but the whole life insurance thing, at least when it comes to younger people, pretty effectively ejects “rich” from our black and red sentence. If it costs the same as cable or a cigarette habit, you don’t need to be rich to pay for it.

Step 4) Put on your bracelet and go on living your life

Cryonics members are given a bracelet and a necklace, etched with instructions and contact info, and encouraged to wear one at all times, so if you suddenly die, whoever finds you will know to notify the company.

Step 5) Die

Okay here’s where things get tricky. We think of the divide between life and death as a distinct boundary, and we believe that at any given point, a person is either definitively alive or definitively dead. But let’s examine that assumption for a second:

Let’s first talk about what it means when a person is “doomed” from a health standpoint. We can all agree that what constitutes someone being doomed depends on where, and when, they are. A three-year-old with advanced pneumonia in 1740 would probably have been doomed, while the same child with the same condition today might be fully treatable. The same story could be said of the fate of someone who falls badly ill in a remote village in Malawi compared with their fate if they were in London instead. “Doomed” depends on a number of factors.

That the same thing can be said of “dead” is at first pretty unintuitive. But Alcor’s CEO Max More puts it this way: “Fifty years ago if you were walking along the street and someone keeled over in front of you and stopped breathing you would have checked them out and said they were dead and disposed of them. Today we don’t do that, instead we do CPR and all kinds of things. People we thought were dead 50 years ago we now know were not.”2

Today, dead means the heart has been stopped for 4-6 minutes, because that’s how long the brain can go without oxygen before brain death occurs. But Alcor, in its site’s Science FAQ, explains that “the brain ‘dies’ after several minutes without oxygen not because it is immediately destroyed, but because of a cascade of processes that commit it to destruction in the hours that follow restoration of warm blood circulation. Restoring circulation with cool blood instead of warm blood, reopening blocked vessels with high pressure, avoiding excessive oxygenation, and blocking cell death with drugs can prevent this destruction.”3 The site goes on to explain that “with new experimental treatments, more than 10 minutes of warm cardiac arrest can now be survived without brain injury. Future technologies for molecular repair may extend the frontiers of resuscitation beyond 60 minutes or more, making today’s beliefs about when death occurs obsolete.”

In other words, what we think of as “dead” actually means “doomed, under the current circumstances.” Someone fifty years ago who suffered from cardiac arrest wasn’t dead, they were doomed to die because the medical technology at the time couldn’t save them. Today, that person wouldn’t be considered dead yet because they wouldn’t be doomed yet. Instead, someone today “dies” 4-6 minutes after cardiac arrest, because that happens to be how long someone can currently go before modern technology can no longer help them.

Cryonicists view death not as a singular event, but as a process—one that starts when the heart stops beating and ends later at a point called “the information-theoretic criterion for death”—let’s call it “info death”—when the brain has become so damaged that no amount of present or future technology could restore it to its original state or have any way to retrieve its information.

Here’s an interesting way to think about it: Imagine a patient arriving in an ambulance to Hospital A, a typical modern hospital. The patient’s heart stopped 15 minutes before the EMTs arrived and he is immediately pronounced dead at the hospital. What if, though, the doctors at Hospital A learned that Hospital B across the street had developed a radical new technology that could revive a patient anytime within 60 minutes after cardiac arrest with no long-term damage? What would the people at Hospital A do?

Of course, they would rush the patient across the street to Hospital B to save him. If Hospital B did save the patient, then by definition the patient wouldn’t actually have been dead in Hospital A, just pronounced dead because Hospital A viewed him as entirely and without exception doomed.

What cryonicists suggest is that in many cases where today a patient is pronounced dead, they’re not dead but rather doomed, and that there is a Hospital B that can save the day—but instead of being in a different place, it’s in a different time. It’s in the future.

That’s why cryonicists adamantly assert that cryonics does not deal with dead people—it deals with living people who simply need to be transferred to a future hospital to be saved. They believe that in many cases, today’s corpse is tomorrow’s patient (which is why they call their frozen clients “patients” instead of “corpses” or “remains”), and they view their work as essentially “extended emergency medicine.”4

But it’s emergency medicine with an important caveat. Today’s technology has no way to revive a cryonically-suspended patient, so it isn’t considered a medical procedure by the law but rather a weird kind of coffin—i.e. if you cryopreserve someone who hasn’t yet been pronounced dead, it’s seen by the law as homicide. Even if the patient is terminally ill beyond any hope and adamantly doesn’t want to deteriorate further before being cryopreserved, it’s not an option—at least not under current laws (laws that some are trying to change). This puts cryonicists in a tough bind—and it’s exactly where that differing definition of death comes in handy.

The law does not see death as a process. For a long time, legal death in the US was considered to occur when a person’s heartbeat and breathing stopped. As modern medical procedures like CPR and defibrillators started to allow those patients to be resuscitated, the law had to change the definition of legal death to include “irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain.”5 The old “heartbeat and breathing” definition of legal death is now called “clinical death,” a middle ground point where there’s an obligation to attempt resuscitation in most cases but where a patient can also have a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order in place (common with terminally ill patients).2 In DNR cases, a doctor or nurse will pronounce a clinically dead patient to be legally dead—even though a resuscitation effort could still revive them.

This is a critical fact for cryonics. Cryonics technicians have to wait until legal death to begin their work on a patient, but with the help of a patient’s DNR order, they can start the process right after the heart stops, well before any brain damage sets in.

So this is the window for cryonics:

Death chart

Which brings us back to our list, where we can now clarify what we really mean with Step 5:

Step 5) Legally Die

You legally dying is a key step along the way here, so don’t mess it up. You can do it the good way, the bad way, or the really bad way.

The good way: Something predictable where you’re in a cliché deathbed situation, like cancer. This allows you to get yourself on a plane to either Scottsdale (Alcor) or Michigan (CI) and into one of the specifically designated hospice care facilities that the cryonics company regularly works with. This is important because cryonics is highly controversial within the mainstream medical community and often not well-regarded or well-understood. As a result, some hospitals and hospice care facilities are “cryonics friendly” and others are not (those that aren’t have been known to make it difficult for cryonics staff to do what they need to do or deny them the same privileges organ transplant specialists get in a hospital). Once you’re in hospice care, the cryonics company can put staff on standby around the clock, so that the second you legally die, they can be there to start the treatment.

The bad way: Something sudden and unexpected, like a heart attack, where at best, someone is there and can contact the cryonics company as you’re rushed to the hospital so they can meet you there, or worse, where you’re dead for a few hours or even longer before anyone finds you. In these circumstances, the cryonics company will do the best they can. Your brain will be in worse shape than ideal when you go into cryopreservation, but again, who knows what future technology will be able to accomplish, and as long as you’re still somewhere in the “cryonics window” and still in the process of dying, not yet having reached info death, there remains hope.

The really bad way: A violent accident or something where your brain ends up badly damaged. In the worst of these cases, there’s not much cryonics can do to help—like the Alcor member who died in the September 11th attacks.6 Another bad ending would be dying in a foul-play situation that would lead the police to want to do an autopsy (Alcor suggests its members file a no-autopsy-for-religious-reasons form with the government). A woman who has signed up for cryonics did a Reddit AMA, and when one of the questions was about how signing up had changed her life, she answered, “The biggest change I’ve noticed is that I’m more careful. I drive slower and more cautiously/attentively, I pay more attention to what’s going on around me.” Because she doesn’t want to die the really bad way.

Step 6) Cool off ASAP and get transferred to the cryonics facility

After you’re declared legally dead, the cryonics team will, ideally, immediately get going. The first thing they do is two-fold—they put you in an ice water bath to bring down your temperature and slow your metabolism (so any damage taking place as a result of cardiac arrest takes longer to happen), and they start getting your heart and lungs working again so that the body remains in stable condition. They do this by administering CPS (like CPR but with an S for support instead of an R for resuscitation, because they’re not trying to resuscitate you) using a mechanical heart-lung resuscitator called a thumper:7


Then they inject you with a number of different medicines to make sure you don’t get blood clots or start rotting.

Once that’s under control, they can do a more involved procedure that surgically accesses the major blood vessels in your thigh and hooks them up to this guy:8


That’s a heart-lung machine that takes care of circulation and oxygenation so they can stop the much cruder CPS. In addition to circulating your blood, the machine draws heat out of your body, cooling it to just above the freezing temperature of water, and replaces some of your blood with an organ preservation solution that supports life at super low temperatures (this is similar to how transplant surgeons keep organs alive when they have to transport them long distances).

If you have to be flown to the cryonics facility, they pack you in ice and put you on board what they hope is not your last ever flight.

Step 7) Get vitrified

Most people who know what cryonics is think it means getting frozen. It doesn’t. It means getting vitrified.

Glass is weird. It’s not a typical solid because as it cools from its liquid phase, it never crystallizes into an orderly structure. But, as I learned when a bunch of commenters yelled at me after I published this post, it’s not actually a liquid either, since it doesn’t flow. So, it’s neither a typical solid nor a liquid—it’s an “amorphous solid,” sometimes compared to a giant molecule. For our purposes, the key is that like a liquid, glass doesn’t crystallize—rather, as it cools the molecules just move slower and slower until they stop.

If you froze a human, all the liquid water in their body would eventually hit its freezing point and crystallize into a solid. That wouldn’t be good—first, water ice takes up about 9% more volume than water liquid, so it would expand and badly damage tissue, and second, the sharp ice crystals would slice through cell membranes and other tissue around it.

So to avoid that catastrophic liquid-to-solid state change, cryonics technicians do something cool—they perform surgery through the chest and hook the major arteries up to tubes which pump all the blood out of the body, replacing it with a “cryoprotectant solution,” otherwise known as medical grade anti-freeze. This does two important things: it replaces 60% of the water in the body’s cells, and it lowers the freezing point of what liquid is left. The result, when done perfectly, is that no freezing happens in the body. Instead, as they chill your body down and down over the next three hours, it hits -124ºC, a key point called the “glass transition temperature” when the body’s liquid stays amorphous but rises so high in viscosity that no molecule can budge. You’re officially an amorphous solid, like glass—i.e. you’re vitrified.

With no molecule movement, all chemical activity in your body comes to a halt. Biological time is stopped. You’re on pause.

Since I’m sure you’re feeling skeptical, it’s helpful to note that vitrifying biological parts is nothing new. We’ve been successfully vitrifying and then rewarming human embryos, sperm, skin, bone, and other body parts for a while now. More recently, scientists vitrified a rabbit kidney:9


Then they rewarmed it and put it back in the rabbit. And it still worked.

And just in February of 2016, there was a cryonics breakthrough when for the first time, scientists vitrified a rabbit’s brain and showed that once rewarmed, it was in near-perfect condition, “with the cell membranes, synapses, and intracellular structures intact … [It was] the first time a cryopreservation was provably able to protect everything associated with learning and memory.”10

Once you’re vitrified, you need to keep being chilled, little by little, until after about two weeks, you’re down to -196ºC. Why? Because that’s the point at which nitrogen becomes a liquid, and you’re about to take a long-term liquid nitrogen bath.

Step 8) Go into storage

Or as Alcor euphemistically calls it, “long-term care.” 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.11


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.12


Or, if you’re in a heads-only thermos, you’ll be one of 45 brains sharing the space (the brain is what’s being stored, but they keep the brains in their heads because it’s riskier to remove a brain than to just keep it in there and use the head as a carrying case).

Oh, and you’re upside-down. This is because liquid nitrogen boils off gradually from the top of the container. Normally, it’s no problem—the staff tops it off about once a week. But if, in some worst-case scenario, a container was forced to be left for a long time, the head would be the last thing to be affected—upside-down patients means it would take six months before the nitrogen boiled off so far that the head would be exposed.

And when it comes to blackouts, cryonics patients are totally safe—there’s no electricity involved in their storage.

And this is where you’ll hang out. Maybe for 10 years. Maybe for 150 years. Maybe for 1,200 years. But the time doesn’t matter to you. You’re on pause.

Now’s a good time for us to take a step back and look at the big picture. If Point A is “I’ve decided I want to sign up for cryonics,” and Point B is “Oh cool it’s the year 2482 and here I am doing stuff,” there are four major Ifs that need to all go the right way to take you from A to B:

1) If I legally die in a not really bad way and everything goes as planned with getting me into the thermos


2) If future humanity ever reaches a point where it has the technology to revive me to full health


3) If the cryonics company can manage to store me safely and uninterrupted until that point


4) If when that point comes, the outside world actually does take action to revive me

—then I’ll be there in 2482 doing stuff.

The eight steps you’ve taken so far that start with choosing a cryonics company and end with you in the thermos only accomplish the first If, with all the other Ifs still standing in between you and the next step in your cryonics journey—revival.

To understand how we can reach that step, we need to understand the deal with all four Ifs.

We’ll start by talking about Ifs 1-3, which need to be discussed together, because they’re interdependent and they work together. To illustrate why, let’s lay them out in the same visual:

Three Segments

The three segments of this line relate to Ifs 1, 2, and 3. But the visual is a little misleading at first, because even though all three segments lie on the same line, they’re all representing different concepts:

  • The blue segment (If 1) represents the quality of your initial preservation.
  • The yellow segment (If 2) represents the capabilities of medical technology as time moves forward.
  • The green segment (If 3) represents the amount of time still needed to bridge the gap between the blue and yellow segments before they can finally connect to each other.

The idea is that the better you were preserved, the farther out to the right the blue segment extends, and as technology gets better and better, the yellow segment extends itself farther and farther left toward the blue segment. The green segment gets smaller and smaller as this happens, until eventually the green segment is no more and the blue and yellow segments connect—i.e. medical technology has reached the point where it can revive you.

A lot of the key details about cryonics are centered here, so let’s talk about each of these segments in more depth:

The blue segment—the quality of your preservation (which relates to If 1)

Three Segments Blue

The length of the blue segment corresponds to the quality of preservation. Or, put most simply, the fewer roadblocks there are between your vitrified state in the thermos and a fully restored and healthy you, the longer the blue segment is—because if everything that happens leading up to you being put in the thermos goes as well as possible, it goes a longer way towards getting you to Point B and means the yellow segment has to do less work on its end to be able to revive you.

Three Segments comparison

The major factor that determines the length of the blue segment is how closely the atomic structure of your vitrified brain resembles the original atomic structure of your brain when it was living and healthy.

Let’s note that I said “brain,” not “body,” because what we mostly care about here is the brain. Cryonicists, like many of us, believe that who you are comes down to your brain. If, in the future, your identical current brain lived on top of a synthetic body and your exact memories and personality were fully intact, cryonicists would be satisfied that you “survived.” That’s why some don’t even bother vitrifying their body.

The second thing to note is that scientists believe that short-term memory is contained in brain activity—in the electricity going through your brain—while your long-term memory, your personality, your knowledge, and everything else that makes you “you” is contained in the brain’s structure—i.e. the particular arrangement of atoms that make up your brain.13

Any electrical activity in your brain before legal death will be lost during vitrification, so you’d be revived without the short-term memory of the end of your pre-vitrified life. But what vitrification can preserve is the structure of your brain, which conveniently, is all we care about.

This concept gives us a clearer understanding of the way cryonicists view death. To cryonicists, perfect health means the exact arrangement of atoms in your healthy brain being intact, and the process of dying means the deterioration of that arrangement due to phenomena like aging, injury, disease, and, eventually, effects caused by heart stoppage. Death, to them, means the point at which the original structure of your brain has become so disorganized that even the fanciest future science lab would have no way of figuring out what the original arrangement looked like—that’s the definition of info death.

The concept of info death makes sense when we compare the brain to a computer’s hard drive. Eliezer Yudkowsky explains how difficult it actually is to bring a computer hard drive to info death:14

If you want to securely erase a hard drive, it’s not as easy as writing it over with zeroes. Sure, an “erased” hard drive like this won’t boot up your computer if you just plug it in again. But if the drive falls into the hands of a specialist with a scanning tunneling microscope, they can tell the difference between “this was a 0, overwritten by a 0” and “this was a 1, overwritten by a 0”.

There are programs advertised to “securely erase” hard drives using many overwrites of 0s, 1s, and random data. But if you want to keep the secret on your hard drive secure against all possible future technologies that might ever be developed, then cover it with thermite and set it on fire. It’s the only way to be sure.

He applies the same logic to the human brain to suggest that cryonics patients should one day be revivable:

Pumping someone full of cryoprotectant and gradually lowering their temperature until they can be stored in liquid nitrogen is not a secure way to erase a person.

In other words, it’s reasonable to assume that the fanciest future neuroscientists will become so good at reading a damaged vitrified brain for clues as to its original structure that a typical combo of aging, disease, heart stoppage, and vitrification likely won’t be able to “stump” them. And to cryonicists, if future scientists can examine your vitrified brain and figure out what it’s supposed to look like, you’re not dead—by definition.

The length of the blue segment—preservation quality—is affected by three things:

1) How much damage happened before you legally died. How old were you when you died? How much had your brain deteriorated by that point? Did you suffer from a dementia-causing disease like Alzheimer’s and how much permanent damage did that disease do?3 Did the thing that killed you damage your brain (like brain cancer, or a head injury) or was your brain unharmed?

2) How much damage happened between when you legally died and when the cryonics team started working on you. In the ideal situation, your heart stops and before any changes happen in your brain, you’re stabilized and put on ice. Often, this isn’t how things go, and every unattended minute that passes after legal death has a big impact on the brain and shortens the length of the blue segment. But cryonicists believe that true info death doesn’t happen for many hours, or even days, after legal death occurs, and that there’s often hope in cryopreserving even people who lay “dead” for a while before being found.

3) How much damage happened during the vitrifying process. Vitrification itself—at least the way it is currently done—causes its own damage to the brain. Cryonics research focuses mostly on mitigating this factor, and it’s dramatically improved since the earliest days in the 1970s—the series of images at the bottom of this page shows the progress that has been made.

The yellow segment—the state of medical technological advancement as time moves forward (which relates to If 2)

Three Segments Yellow

As medical technology becomes more and more advanced, the yellow segment grows—but while the blue segment extends to the right as it grows, the yellow segment extends to the left. The key point happens when technology eventually gets so good that the yellow segment meets the blue segment and you become officially revivable.

Some questions:

Will If 2 happen? Will technology ever reach the point when it can revive you?

Assuming If 1 gets a check mark, cryonicists believe If 2 is likely to one day get a check mark too. Because there are only two ways to totally fail If 2:

1) For some reason, humans permanently stop working on medical technology advancements before you hit the If 2 key point.

2) Humans go extinct before hitting the If 2 key point.

Barring those two situations, If 2 should eventually cooperate. The theory is that with enough future technology, you’ll one day be revivable.

When will If 2 happen? How long until I’m revived?

This part depends on how substantial the technological challenge of cryonic revival turns out to be and how quickly technology ends up moving forward—but it also depends upon how well If 1 went. As we just discussed, the better If 1 goes, the sooner If 2 happens.

How will If 2 happen? What kind of future technology might be able to revive vitrified people?

Well, it depends on what we mean by revival. Cryonicists seem to have a Plan A and a Plan B.

Plan A: Restore the vitrified patient as a healthy human

Under Plan A, revival consists of restoring the structure of the vitrified brain to its original state—i.e. putting all the atoms where they belong. To do that, you need two things:

1) The info about where the atoms are supposed to go

2) A way to put the atoms where they’re supposed to go

The first thing is taken care of if today’s vitrifying procedures do their job, assuming future neuroscientists become really good at deciphering a brain’s original state from the information they can gather by examining the vitrified brain.

The second thing requires molecular nanotechnology. For a quick nanotech overview, I’ll steal part of a blue box from the AI post:

Nanotechnology Blue Box

Nanotechnology is our word for technology that deals with the manipulation of matter that’s between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, or a millionth of a millimeter, and this 1-100 range encompasses viruses (100 nm across), DNA (10 nm wide), and things as small as large molecules like hemoglobin (5 nm) and medium molecules like glucose (1 nm). If/when we conquer nanotechnology, the next step will be the ability to manipulate individual atoms, which are only one order of magnitude smaller (~.1 nm).4

To understand the challenge of humans trying to manipulate matter in that range, let’s take the same thing on a larger scale. The International Space Station is 268 mi (431 km) above the Earth. If humans were giants so large their heads reached up to the ISS, they’d be about 250,000 times bigger than they are now. If you make the 1nm – 100nm nanotech range 250,000 times bigger, you get .25mm – 2.5cm. So nanotechnology is the equivalent of a human giant as tall as the ISS figuring out how to carefully build intricate objects using materials between the size of a grain of sand and an eyeball. To reach the next level—manipulating individual atoms—the giant would have to carefully position objects that are 1/40th of a millimeter—so small normal-size humans would need a microscope to see them.5

Nanotech was first discussed by Richard Feynman in a 1959 talk, when he explained: “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It would be, in principle, possible … for a physicist to synthesize any chemical substance that the chemist writes down…. How? Put the atoms down where the chemist says, and so you make the substance.” It’s as simple as that. If you can figure out how to move individual molecules or atoms around, you can make literally anything. Nanotechnology so advanced that it allows us to engineer at an atomic level is called molecular nanotechnology (MNT).

Humans haven’t yet conquered MNT, and scientists debate how long it’ll take humanity to get there. But when we do, we might look back on today’s technology as terribly primitive, like the picture scientist Ralph Merkle paints: “Today’s manufacturing methods are very crude at the molecular level. Casting, grinding, milling and even lithography move atoms in great thundering statistical herds. It’s like trying to make things out of LEGO blocks with boxing gloves on your hands. Yes, you can push the LEGO blocks into great heaps and pile them up, but you can’t really snap them together the way you’d like.”

MNT will be a game-changer in an unimaginable number of arenas, one of which is in medicine. A brain synapse is just a particular configuration of atoms, so if we have the tools to move atoms around and put them where we want, then we can perfectly “repair” a damaged synapse. Cryonicists believe MNT is the key to the future revival and restoration of cryonics patients.

The first thought some people have when they think about revival is that the person would be revived as the old and dying person they were before being vitrified. But that’s not the plan. When we get to the point when we have technology so incredible that we can move atoms around well enough to revive someone, we should also have the technology to repair and rejuvenate them. For someone who was dying of cancer before going into the thermos, not only will their successful revival mean that cancer has likely been conquered long ago, but probably aging too.

Along the same lines, by that point we should also be able to either rejuvenate the patient’s vitrified body or simply make a new, perfectly-working body. Alcor’s Medical Response Director, Aaron Drake, explains: “We know we can regenerate a small organ, and grow a new heart. We know we can 3-dimensionally print cells and hearts. So at some point we would need to regenerate her entire body, or at least her organs, and put it all together. Then we’d need to transplant that brain into a new body.”15

Plan B: Upload the person’s brain info into a virtual world

Plan B shares Plan A’s first requirement—the info about where the atoms are supposed to go—but not its need for physical assembly. Instead, Plan B relies on a hypothetical future technology called “whole brain emulation,” where an entire brain structure can be uploaded to a computer with such perfect accuracy that everything about the person is intact and alive in a virtual world.

Sounds super fun, right?

This is an option if physical revival is too difficult, or if it’s so far in the future that the physical world has actually gone out of style entirely. If humans can somehow pull off whole brain emulation, you could be revived to wake up in a magical virtual world, fully conscious and no longer confined to the limits and vulnerabilities of biology and the physical world. Please.

While both Plan A and B require immense technological hurdles, cryonicists stress that both options are theoretically possible.

The green segment—the amount of time you need to stay safely in storage before technology is able to revive you (which relates to If 3)

Three Segments Green

The green segment’s job is simple: hold everything together until the yellow segment connects to the blue segment.

So what could mess up If 3? What could sabotage a vitrified person’s ability to remain bathed in liquid nitrogen as long as necessary?

A lot of things. Like:

The cryonics company screws up. A human-error-caused catastrophe—e.g. a rupture in a thermos tank lets in heat, and all the liquid nitrogen evaporates before the staff realizes what happened.

The cryonics company goes bankrupt and doesn’t have the means, the will, or the organization to create a plan that will save the patients. I mentioned that this happened a few times with some of the earlier companies. The major companies today claim to have secure backup plans in place in case of the worst case scenario, and this security blanket is the main purpose of Alcor’s sizable trust.

A natural disaster. An earthquake, tornado, or something else smashes the building holding the thermoses to oblivion. Neither major US cryonics company is in a location highly prone to natural disasters—Alcor actually located itself in Scottsdale, AZ because it is the place in the US least at risk of natural disasters. Even if a natural disaster were to strike, the patients might be fine—the thermoses are strong, they’re power-outage-proof with no electricity involved, and even if a thermos is ruptured, there’s the upside-down thing where patients’ heads will be the last body part affected.

A terrorist attack on a cryonics facility. There are a lot of people in the world—especially in the world of religion—who hate the concept of cryonics.

War. All bets are off in war.

The law prevents the cryonics company from doing its job. This one almost happened recently. In 2004, Arizona legislators tried to pass a bill that would have put Alcor under the regulation of the State Funeral Board. This, if passed, would have likely ended up shutting Alcor down. It turned into a nasty debate, centered largely around religious issues, with the religious voice disapproving of Alcor’s line of work—but ultimately, Alcor prevailed. That said, in order to do business legally, Alcor has to accept bodies in the guise of “anatomical donations for research purposes,” a practice protected by the constitutional right to donate one’s body for research into cryopreservation. The law-related variable seems pretty stable currently, but if someone has a long green segment and requires 800 years of storage before their revival becomes possible, who the hell knows what will happen—what is currently Scottsdale, AZ might not even be part of the US by that point.

The cryonics company comes under ownership with different values and they decide to give up on the patients. Or, more maliciously, a cryonics-hater makes a too-good-to-refuse offer to the owners of a cryonics company with the intention of shutting it down. All major cryonics companies claim that they’re run and always will be run by passionate cryonicists and this is not a possibility—but again, who knows.

The longer the green segment is and the longer it needs to hold out, the higher the chance of failing If 3. If patients can be revived 40 years from now, there’s a lot less that can go wrong than if revival doesn’t become possible for 2,500 years.

But the companies are doing their best to plan for the long run. On the question of how long until revival becomes possible, Alcor says, “Some think it will take centuries before patients can be revived, while others think the accelerating pace of technological change might so rapidly transform our world that decades would suffice. Alcor is planning for however long it might take.”16

As time moves forward and both vitrification and revival technology improve, both the blue and yellow segments will tend to move inward, invading the green segment from both sides. The big picture might be best illustrated like this:

Cryonics big picture

This is how the blue, green and yellow segments work in flow with each other. Cryonics companies often say cryonics will be a “last in, first out” thing, and this graph shows exactly why—

Cryonics big picture 2

The more time that passes before you need to be vitrified, the fancier the vitrification technology you’ll be treated with and the further along revival technology will be—and this smaller technology gap will mean a sooner revival date. And with less time to have to rely on a cryonics company to care for you, the less risk you’ll be taking.

It’s important to understand that the blue line on the graph applies to the average cryonics patient—someone who suffers from Alzheimers late in life will go into vitrification in worse shape than a typical person of their time, so their particular challenge will be greater than the blue line height that corresponds with the year of their death.

Of course, the simple, straight lines on the graph are portraying the general concept. The actual lines won’t be straight or predictable. One promising way this might be the case is that the accelerating rate of technological advancement6 might mean that the blue and yellow lines could improve at a faster rate over time and look like this:

Cryonics big picture Exponential

So that’s how the first three Ifs work. And that’s all great—but none of it matters if If 4 doesn’t pan out. Without If 4—i.e. “Will people actually revive me when the time comes?”—you’re still just a helpless, vitrified body, and if the external world doesn’t keep their side of the bargain once you become revivable, you’re out of luck—and you’ll never know it happened.

You’ll be a little like a farm animal. You might have rights in theory, but with no ability to defend your own rights, you’ll rely on other people to fight for those rights on your behalf.

As I’ve dug into this topic and talked to people about it, I’ve noticed that this concern seems to jump immediately to people’s minds as a reason cryonics is unlikely to work out.

They ask: “There will be enough problems on Earth to deal with—do you really think people are going to care about bringing dead people back to life?”

Cryonicists have answers to this question.

First, they point out that patients won’t be floating in tanks in a world that has forgotten them. Rather, as a patient, you’d likely have A) descendants or friends who will be highly aware of you and eager to see you reanimated, B) the larger cryonicist community, who will be as passionately interested in your fair treatment as PETA activists are in the fair treatment of animals, and C) the contractual obligation of your future care-takers—similar to how today you might be operated on by a surgeon who doesn’t know you, but who diligently cares for you anyway out of professional obligation.

Second, they argue that once the revival of cryonics patients becomes a reality, the public’s conception of what a cryonics patient is and what she deserves will dramatically shift:17

Long before it ever becomes possible to contemplate revival of today’s patients, reversible suspended animation will be perfected as a mainstream medical technology. From that point forward, the whole tradition of caring for people who cannot immediately be fixed will be strongly reinforced in culture and law. By the time it becomes possible to revive patients preserved with the oldest and crudest technologies, revival from states of suspended animation will be something that has been done thousands, if not millions, of times before. The moral and cultural imperative for revival when possible will be as basic and strong as the obligation to render first aid and emergency medical care today.

If a cryonics patient might seem to have the rights of a farm animal today, cryonicists expect that to become an outdated and primitive-seeming viewpoint down the road. They believe cryonics patients will be looked upon more like today’s coma patients.

That sounds great, but of course, we have no idea how the future will play out or what the standing will be for the field of cryonics and its suspended patients. It does seem plausible, at least, that cryonics patients will end up with more and more rights in the future, not fewer and fewer. If that’s what happens, If 4 shouldn’t be much of a problem.

And if all four Ifs go your way, you’ll finally be able to move onto the next step—the one that will really blow your mind when it happens.

Step 9) Be revived

This will be quite the experience.

First, whether it happens 30 years or 2,000 years after you were last conscious, it’ll feel the same to you—probably a bit like a short nap. When you sleep, you feel the passage of time—when you wake up after an eight-hour night’s sleep, it doesn’t feel like you just went to bed a second ago, it feels like it’s been eight hours. But being on pause in your liquid nitrogen thermos is different. You won’t experience the passage of time, so it’ll feel like you were just awake in your previous life (the only reason it won’t feel totally instantaneous is that you’ll have lost your short term memories). You’ll probably be super disoriented, and someone will have to explain to you that A) you’re in the future, and B) the cryonics worked, and you’re no longer a person about to die—you’re healthy and rejuvenated and all set to start living again.

How intense.

As a very not-heaven-believing person, I’ve always thought about how pleasantly shocked I would be if I died and then woke up in some delightful afterlife. I’d look around, slowly realize what was happening, and then I’d be like, “Wait…NO FUCKING WAY.” Then I’d promptly plant myself at the gates and watch other atheists come in for the fun of seeing them go through the same shock.

I imagine being revived from cryonics will be kind of like that. Maybe a few notches less shocking, since you presumably did the cryonics thing because you thought there was a chance it would work—but still a pretty big no fucking way moment.

After the initial shock, you’ll have to figure out what kind of world you’ve woken up into. Some possibilities:

It could suckYou could wake up in a far future world that’s a lot worse than the one you previously lived in and a world in which you know zero people. Even worse, you could wake up in some really scary situation—who knows what kind of creepy shit might be going on in the future.

It could be blah. You could wake up in a world that’s kind of meh. Like it’s not as future-y and cool as you thought it would be and you’re not immortal, just somewhat restored and still vulnerable, and you have to get a job and you don’t really have applicable skills for the times. Just kind of whatevs.

It could be incredibly rad. Probably the most likely outcome, you could wake up and it could be very, very rad. The future-y stuff might be cool and fun beyond your comprehension. You might have previously been 84 and aching everywhere and forgetful, and suddenly you have the body of a perfectly fit 20-year-old, or maybe something even better, like a super-charged synthetic body that doesn’t feel pain or exhaustion and can’t get sick. Your old, forgetful brain could be repaired and full of vitality you haven’t experienced in 50 years. And best, you might be surrounded by friends and family who were also cryopreserved and are unbelievably excited to see you. It could be rad.

It could be even crazier if you wake up in a virtual world after having had your vitrified brain data uploaded to a computer. You wouldn’t feel like you were in a computer—you’d feel every bit as real as you did when you were a human, except now everything is amazing and magical and you can spend almost all your time fulfilling my lifelong dream of sliding down rainbows like this care bear.18


Your friends and family could be there with you, also virtually uploaded but still fully themselves with all of their old memories—all of you now eternal and indestructible, with no need for the physical world or its resources.

Who knows what kind of world you’d wake up in. But a couple things lead me to believe it would be a pretty good situation:

  • A really terrible future world probably isn’t the type of world that would be concerned with protecting and reviving cryonics patients. In a world like that, you’d probably just never wake up.
  • Likewise, a future that can revive vitrified people is by definition pretty technologically amazing, so it’s hard to imagine waking up in a world that hasn’t solved all kinds of problems our current world suffers from.
  • The future tends to be better than the past. Humans have the tendency to predict dystopian futures, but at least so far, it’s been the other way around. Say what you want about the ills of today’s world, but it’s better to be a human today than it was 200 or 1,000 or 10,000 years ago.

But because we have no idea what revival will be like, we have this next step:

Step 10) Decide if you’re into it and want to stay

Barring some hilariously bad scenario where you’re revived into a world of eternal virtual torture with no ability to end it—which really makes no sense—cryonics is a risk-free venture. It has an undo button—just kill yourself and it’s as if it never happened. If you’re not into it, your journey ends here. Otherwise, move on to the next step.

Step 11) Enjoy shit

We’ve kind of reached the end of me guiding you. You’re now just living again like you were before—hopefully in a much better situation—and what you do at this point is really your business. Just go do your thing and enjoy being in the future.

Step 12) Die for real this time

At some point, you’ll be over it. No one ever will ever ever want to live forever, a fact I realized at the end of my Graham’s Number post. When the time comes, I assume the fancy future will have some painless way to bow out—something that will cause total info death, where your data is truly unrecoverable. At that point, you’ll have lived the complete life you want to live, not a life cut short by the limitations of the medical technology of the time you happen to be born in. That’s really the way things should be.


Now that we all know a lot more about cryonics, let’s bring back our sentence. This is where we were, and we were looking closely at the three words in the red:

Cryonics is the morbid process of freezing rich, dead people who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to bring them back to life, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

We can get rid of “rich,” because at least for younger people, cryonics can be paid for with a not-that-expensive life insurance plan.

We can get rid of “dead,” because cryonics doesn’t deal with dead people, it deals with people currently doomed to die given the technology they have current access to. For the same reason, we can also change the wording of “bring them back to life.”

And we can get rid of “freezing,” because cryonics doesn’t freeze people—it vitrifies them into an amorphous solid state.

While we’re here, let’s get rid of “morbid.” Is a vitrified human head floating in liquid nitrogen morbid? Yes. Is it more morbid than being eaten by worms and microbes underground or being burned to ashes? Definitely not. So not a fair word to use.

So that leaves us with a sentence more like this:

Cryonics is the process of pausing people in critical condition who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to save them, and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

And then there’s the elephant in the room—this part of the sentence: …and the community of hard-core cryonics people might also be a Scientology-like cult.

I put that in there because when you’re examining something that involves A) a fringe community, B) the possible concept of immortality, and C) members paying large sums of money for services that they’re told might pan out 1,000 years from now—you have no choice but to put up your “Is this a Scientology-y thing?” antenna.

One way to let that antenna do its work is to read a bunch of stuff written by smart, credible people who think the whole thing is utter BS. If anything will disenchant you to the excitement of something as out there as cryonics, it’s experts telling you why it should be ignored.

So I did that. And as I read, I weighed what I read against the rebuttal from cryonicists, which I’d often find on Alcor’s highly comprehensive FAQ page. Other resources for the cryonicist viewpoint are the thorough FAQ of the Cryonics Institute’s ex-president, Ben Best, Alcor’s Science FAQ and Alcor’s Myths page.

The people who are super not into cryonics fall into a few general buckets:

Skeptic Type 1: The scientist with a valid argument about why cryonics might not be possible

The mainstream medical community is generally not on board with cryonics. No health insurance company will cover it, no government will subsidize it, no doctors will refer to it as a medical procedure.

Some skeptics make what seem to be valid points. Biochemist Ken Storey says, “We have many different organs and we know from research into preserving transplant organs that even if it were possible to successfully cryopreserve them, each would need to be cooled at a different rate and with a different mixture and concentration of cryoprotectants. Even if you only wanted to preserve the brain, it has dozens of different areas, which would need to be cryopreserved using different protocols.” Storey also points out just how tall an order it would be to “repair” someone damaged by vitrification, explaining that “a human cell has around 50,000 proteins and hundreds of millions of fat molecules that make up the membranes. Cryopreservation disrupts all of them.” (Alcor calls this statement patently false.7)

Others point to the towering challenge of either repairing a human brain or scanning one in order to upload it. Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis emphasizes that the task of scanning a human brain would require, with today’s technology, “a million electron microscopes running in parallel for ten years.” Michael Hendricks, who studies the brains of roundworms, believes the challenge of reviving the qualities that make someone who they are is far too complex to achieve, explaining that “while it might be theoretically possible to preserve these features in dead tissue, that certainly is not happening now. The technology to do so, let alone the ability to read this information back out of such a specimen, does not yet exist even in principle.”

Cryonicist response: Totes

Cryonicists don’t really disagree with these people (Storey’s quote notwithstanding). They readily admit that the challenges of reviving someone from cryopreservation are insurmountable using today’s technology. They simply point out that A) there’s no scientific evidence that cryonics can’t work, B) we shouldn’t underestimate what future technology will be able to do (imagine how mind-blowing CRISPRwould be to someone in the year 1700 and think about what the equivalent would be for us), and C) there have been some promising developments—like the recent well-preserved vitrified rabbit brainnews—that suggest there’s reason for optimism.

I’m yet to hear a cryonicist say, “Cryonics will work.” They just don’t feel that this is a case where a lack of proof amounts to a lack of credibility. Alcor’s Science FAQ addresses this: “The burden of proof lies with those who make a claim that is inconsistent with existing well-established scientific theory. Cryonics is not inconsistent with well-established scientific theory … At no point does cryonics require that existing physical law be altered in any way.”

Cryonicists also don’t waste an opportunity to point out these quotes:

“There is no hope for the fanciful idea of reaching the Moon because of insurmountable barriers to escaping the Earth’s gravity.” — Dr. Forest Ray Moulton, University of Chicago astronomer, 1932.

“All this writing about space travel is utter bilge.” — Sir Richard Woolley, Astronomer Royal of Britain, 1956

“To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon…. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances.” — Dr. Lee De Forest, famous engineer, 1957


Skeptic Type 2: The scientist who argues that cryonics won’t work even though they know less about cryonics than you do right now having read this post

This is a surprisingly large category of cryonics skeptics. It’s amazing, for example, how many people from the mainstream medical world argue that cryonics can’t work because when water freezes, it causes irreparable damage to human tissue.

Cryonicist response: Agreed—that’s why we don’t freeze people. Please read about what cryonics is before saying more words out of your mouth.

Among the cryonics skeptics who literally don’t get what modern cryonics consists of is celebrity physicist Michio Kaku, someone I normally like, but who in this clip is taken to town by Alcor’s CEO for having no idea what he’s talking about.

Part of the reason most scientists don’t get cryonics has to do with its cross-disciplinary nature. Alcor explains:

Most experts in any single field will say that they know of no evidence that cryonics can work. That’s because cryonics is an interdisciplinary field based on three facts from diverse unrelated sciences. Without all these facts, cryonics seems ridiculous. Unfortunately that makes the number of experts qualified to comment on cryonics very small. For example, very few scientists even know what vitrification is. Fewer still know that vitrification can preserve cell structure of whole organs or whole brains. Even though this use of vitrification has been published, it is so uncommon outside of cryonics that only a handful of cryobiologists know it is possible.


Skeptic Type 3: The cryogenicist who doesn’t want the other cool kids to think he’s friends with cryonics, the weird outsider.

There’s an amusing little one-way rivalry going on between cryogenicists (who, remember, deal with the science of the effects of cold temperatures in general) and cryonicists. Cryogenicists tend to view cryonics like an astronomer would view astrology—or at least, that’s what they say publicly out of caution. They seem to sometimes admit that there could be sound science behind cryonics, but they also know that cryonics lacks credibility with the wider science community and they don’t want to get roped into that reputation problem by association (they also have very little sense of humor about people confusing the words cryogenics and cryonics).

Cryonicist response: Whatevs.


Skeptic Type 4: The person who believes that even if you can revive a vitrified person, it won’t really be them.

This relates to a philosophical quandary I explored in the post What Makes You You? Are “you” your body? Your brain? The data in your brain? Something less tangible like a soul? This all becomes highly relevant when we’re thinking about cryonics. It’s hard to read about cryonic revival, and especially the prospect of “waking up” in a virtual world you’ve been uploaded into, without asking, “But wait…will that still be me?”

This is a common objection to cryonics, but few people will argue with conviction that they know the answer to this question one way or the other.

Cryonicist response: Yeah, we’re not sure about that either. Fingers crossed though.

Most cryonicists have a hunch that you can survive cryopreservation intact (cryonicist Eliezer Yudkowsky argues that “successful cryonics preserves anything about you that is preserved by going to sleep at night and waking up the next morning”) but they also admit that this is yet another variable they’re not sure about. You might even want to consider this a fifth “If” to add onto our list: If what seems to be a revived me is actually me…


Skeptic Type 5: The person who, regardless of whether cryonics can work or not, thinks it’s a bad thing

There are lots of these people. A handful of examples:

Argument: Cryonics is icky.

Typical cryonicist response: Yup, but less icky than decaying underground.

Argument: Cryonics is creepy and unnatural.

Typical cryonicist response: People said the same thing about the first organ transplants.

Argument: Cryonics is trying to play God and cheat death.

Typical cryonicist response: Is resuscitating someone whose heart has stopped playing God and cheating death? How about chemotherapy?

Argument: Cryonics is a scam.

Typical cryonicist response: The major cryonics companies are all nonprofits, the employees are paid modestly and the board members running the company (who are all signed up for cryonics themselves) aren’t paid at all. So who exactly is benefiting from this scam?

Argument: “If you have enough money [for cryonics], then you have enough money to help somebody in need today.” — Bioethicist Kenneth Goodman19

Actual cryonicist response: “If you have enough money for health insurance (which costs a lot more than cryonics), then you have enough money to help somebody else in need today. In fact, if you have enough money for any discretionary expenditure (travel, sports, movies, beer), then you have enough money to help somebody in need today. Of all the ways people choose to spend substantial sums of money over a lifetime, singling out the health care choice of cryonics as selfish is completely arbitrary.”20

Argument: “Money invested to preserve human life in the deep freeze is money wasted, the sums involved being large enough to fulfill a punitive function as a self-imposed fine for gullibility and vanity.” — Biologist Jean Medawar21

Actual cryonicist response: “Nobody would ever imagine calling the first recipients of bone marrow transplants or artificial hearts “gullible and vain”. And what of dying children who are cryopreserved? Cryonics is an experiment, and people who choose this experiment are worthy of the same respect as other participants in high risk medical endeavors.”22

Argument: Cryonics will cause an overpopulation disaster.

Actual cryonicist response: This is a common one I’ve heard in my discussions. Here’s what Alcor says: “What about antibiotics, vaccinations, statin drugs and the population pressures they bring? It’s silly to single out something as small and speculative as cryonics as a population issue. Life spans will continue increasing in developed parts of the world, cryonics or not, as they have done for the past century. Historically, as societies become more wealthy and long-lived, population takes care of itself. Couples have fewer children at later ages. This is happening in the world right now. The worst population problems are where people are poor and life spans short, not long.”23

Argument: But Ted Williams.

Let me explain. There are a handful of famous people signed up for cryonics, like Ray Kurzweil, nanotech pioneer Eric Drexler, and celebrities like Larry King, Britney Spears, Simon Cowell, and Paris Hilton.24 But there are very few big names among the 300 or so who are already vitrified. One that is is baseball legend Ted Williams.

Williams is the first thing that comes to mind when a lot of people think about cryonics, an unfortunate fact that cryonicists wish would go away, because his story is mired in scandal (two of Williams’ children said cryonics is what he wanted while the other claimed he wanted to be cremated and the son was just cryopreserving him so he could later profit off of his DNA samples). The ugly story ended up, fairly or unfairly, as a stain on the cryonics industry in many people’s heads, partially because in the midst of it, Sports Illustrated published an article about the scandal with quotes from an ex-Alcor employeeaccusing Alcor of mismanaging the Williams vitrification, among other things.

Typical cryonicist response: Unfairly. It’s a stain unfairly. The accusations weren’t based in reality, and the employee recently admitted in court that what he said may not have been true.

Argument: Life is long enough. People aren’t supposed to live longer than we do now. Just enjoy what you’ve got.

Typical cryonicist response: Thank you for your opinion. I disagree.

So how does my Scientology antenna feel after reading about 50 skeptic opinions?

Well, the skeptics definitely helped me appreciate the magnitude of the challenge at hand with cryonics. Science has a long way to go before cryonics can truly function as a pause button instead of a stop button—and we may never get there.

But it left me feeling every bit as confident that cryonics is a worthy pursuit and possibly a total game-changer. The fact that cryonic revival seems plausible, coupled with the fact that through most of history, the people of the time couldn’t have even imagined the magic that future technology would make real, makes me feel like the safer bet is on cryonics eventually working. If something important isn’t impossible, the future will probably figure out a way to make it happen, with enough time.

There’s also the “why the fuck not?” argument cryonicists make that’s very hard for skeptics to thwart.

Pro-cryonics scientist Ralph Merkle says it well:25

The correct scientific answer to the question “Does cryonics work?” is: “The clinical trials are in progress. Come back in a century and we’ll give you an answer based on the outcome.” The relevant question for those of us who don’t expect to live that long is: “Would I rather be in the control group, or the experimental group?” We are forced by circumstances to answer that question without the benefit of knowing the results of the clinical trials.

The only way to shoot down a response that says, “We don’t know but we might as well try” is to say, “There is definitely no point in trying because it’s impossible.” And very few credible scientists would claim to have that conviction about things as mysterious as the workings of the brain and the possibilities of the far future.

The other thing that struck me as I learned about cryonics is that cryonicists aren’t usually “salesy” at all when they talk about cryonics. The impression I got from my research is that cryonicists tend to be well-educated, rational, realistic, and humble about what they know and don’t know. They readily admit the problems and shortcomings of the field8 and they’re careful to use measured, responsible language so as not to distort the nuances of the truth.9 And despite a general lack of support from the mainstream medical community, plenty of reputable scientists have become fervent cryonicists.

So, for now, cryonics has satisfied my Scientology antenna.

Which shortens our sentence to this:

Cryonics is the process of pausing people in critical condition who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to save them.

The final wording in the sentence that I’d like to challenge is:

Cryonics is the process of pausing people in critical condition who can’t accept the concept of death, in the hopes that people from the future will be able to save them.

This is the part of the sentence that carries a twinge of eye-rolling contempt—something people often feel when they hear about someone with a desire to conquer mortality. Aside from the aversion we have to the prospect of a human body floating in a freezing tank, many of us feel a distaste towards the motivation behind cryonics. It seems greedy to want more than your one standard life.

I’m not one to typically feel contempt at something like this, but early in my research, even I found myself doing a little head shake when I read about billionaire Peter Thiel signing up for cryonics a while back.

But this post has forced me to take a big step back—back to where I can see death not as a moment but as a process, back to where I can see the human lifespan as a product of our times, not our biology, and back to where I see the concept of human health spread out along the spans of time and where I can imagine how future humans will see our current times of helplessness in the face of biological deterioration.

From way out here, it hits you that we’re living in a phase—a sad little window that an intelligent species inevitably passes through, when they’re advanced enough to understand their own mortality, but still too primitive to save themselves from it. We grapple with this by treating death like a tyrannical overlord we wouldn’t dare try to challenge, not even in our own private thoughts. We’ve been universally defeated and dominated by this overlord for as long as we’ve existed, and all we know how to do is bow down to it in full resignation of its power over us.10

Future humans who have one day overthrown the overlord will look at the phase we’re in and our resulting psychological condition with such clarity—they’ll be sad for us the way we’re sad for brainwashed members of an ancient cult who commit mass suicide because the master has instructed it.

Our will isn’t broken when it comes to resisting the overlord—that’s why we see it as honorable to fight cancer till the final minute, heroic to risk your own life for a good cause and make it out alive, and a terrible mistake to resign to the overlord prematurely and commit suicide.

But when it comes to defeating the overlord, our will has been squashed by a history that tells us that the overlord is indestructible.

And this explains the divide between how cryonicists feel about cryonics and how the rest of us view it. The divide is for two reasons:

1) Cryonicists view death as a process and consider many people who are declared dead today to still be alive—and they view cryonics as an attempted transfer of a living patient to a future hospital that can save his life. In other words, they view cryonics merely as an attempt to resist the overlord, no different than the way we view someone being transferred to a hospital in a different location which has better treatment options for their condition. Most of us, by contrast, view death as a singular moment, so we see cryonics as an attempt to bring a dead person back to life—i.e. we see cryonics as an attempt to defeat the overlord. When cryonicists see us cheer on a billionaire who fights cancer and shake our heads at one who signs up for cryonics, when they see us praying for someone in a coma and rolling our eyes at someone being vitrified—they see us being highly irrational.

2) Cryonicists view death not as an all-powerful overlord but as a puzzle to be solved. They see humans as an arrangement of atoms and see no reason that arrangement should have to inevitably deteriorate if our scientists can just get better at working with atoms. So for them, trying to defeat death altogether is an obvious, rational mission to undertake. But most of us view death as a fundamental fact of the universe—a mysterious and terrifying shadow that hovers over all living things and that only a naive fool would try to escape from—so instead of cheering on the people trying to solve the puzzle of death, we scoff at them and laugh at them, as if they’re too immature to come to peace with the inevitable.

Looking at this through a zoomed out lens was a big Whoa Moment epiphany for me. Suddenly, I saw the cryonicists’ of the world in the same light as those rare ancient people trying to understand how earthquakes work so they could be best prepared for the next one, and I realized that when I shook my head at Peter Thiel, I was being like one of the hordes of ancient people who worshipped the gods that had punished us with that earthquake and who wanted to burn those rare scientists at the stake for their blasphemous thinking.

I started this post thinking I’d simply write a “mini post” about this little community of cryonicists and what they were trying to do and ended it staring at another example of today’s self-proclaimed science-minded rationalists being tomorrow’s idol-worshippers.

I also saw my conception of end-of-life morality flip itself on its head. At the beginning of my research, my question was, “Is cryonics an okay thing to do?” By the end, the question was , “Is it okay to not sign up a dying child for cryonics, or will future people view that the way we see a parent refusing to allow life-saving medical treatment to their child for religious reasons?”

Cryonics has quickly come to seem not only like a good thing to try, but like the right thing to do.

That’s certainly how Alcor sees it. They say:

The moral argument for cryonics is that it’s wrong to discontinue care of an unconscious person when they can still be rescued. This is why people who fall unconscious are taken to hospital by ambulance, why they will be maintained for weeks in intensive care if necessary, and why they will still be cared for even if they don’t fully awaken after that. It is a moral imperative to care for unconscious people as long as there remains reasonable hope for recovery.

And once you’re looking through that lens, everything we consider normal starts to look crazy.

When Kim Suozzi found out she was dying of cancer at age 23, she signed up to be cryopreserved. She viewed it like trying a new experimental drug that might have a chance to save her when nothing else could—a no-brainer. But her father fiercely resisted the decision,11 Reddit users scorned her for it, and the story was unusual enough to warrant a feature article in the New York Times.

It’s as if Kim was part of a group of the world’s cancer-stricken 23-year-olds as they all walked toward a cliff to fall into the jaws of the overlord, and Kim saw a rope hanging from a higher cliff across the chasm and decided to jump for it because maybe, just maybe, it could pull her to safety. And the Timesfound that to be so bizarre, and so out there, that they wrote a piece on it. Huh?

From far away, it looks a lot like we’re all on a plane that’s going down, with our only shot at survival being to take a chance with an experimental parachute—and we’re all just staying in our seats.


I’ve decided to take a parachute and jump. I have an appointment set up for early April with a life insurance agent and Alcor member to get set up with a plan. I can boil the decision down to three reasons:

1) I love life. Readers have picked up on my mild obsession with death, which might have something to do with the 55 times I’ve talked about it on this blog. But when they bring it up with me, they refer to it as my fear of death. Which isn’t quite how I feel. It’s more that I really like life. I like doing things and thinking things and I like my family and friends and want to keep hanging out with them if I can. I also really want to see what happens. I want to be there when we figure out the Fermi Paradox and when we discover what dark matter is and when we terraform Mars and when AI takes all our jobs and then extincts all of us. I want to see what the 23rd century is like and see how cool the phones are by then. Being alive is a lot more interesting than being dead. And since I have all of eternity to be dead, it seems logical to stay not dead for at least a while when I have the chance.

2) This chart.


3) Hope. I’ve always been jealous of religious people, because on their deathbed, instead of thinking, “Shit,” they’re thinking, “Okay here’s the big moment—am I about to blink and wake up in heaven??” Much more fun. And much more exciting. Whether cryonics pans out or not, as I age, at least a little part of me can now be thinking, “I wonder what’s gonna happen when I die?” Atheists aren’t supposed to get to think that. Humans don’t need a huge amount of hope to feel hopeful—they just need something to cling onto. Just enough to be able to have the “So you’re sayin there’s a chance!” feeling.

Some of you will resonate with my decision—others will think it makes me silly, gullible, or selfish.

Either way, you should think about this and the fact that you currently have a plan, whether you realize it or not. Likely, that plan is to resign to death. To walk off the cliff instead of jumping for the lifeline. To stay planted in your seat as the plane goes down.

That’s not necessarily the wrong decision, depending on who you are, what you believe, and what you value. But if that’s your plan, it should be because you like that plan more than the alternative—not because you haven’t thought about it and are just doing what everyone else is doing. This is a matter of your one existence, and you have to take the fate of that existence into your own, independent-thinking hands.

And if you decide that you probably would rather grab a parachute than stay in your seat, try not to fall victim to a common trap:


That’s a real term used in the cryonics world to describe the phenomenon of people—especially young people—saying, “Yeah duh I’m obviously doing cryonics when I die” and then not actually going through the actions to sign up and start paying money. It’s natural—what could possibly be easier to procrastinate on? That item on your list—”sign up for cryonics”—tends to never find itself at the top of the to-do list. But no matter what age you are, unexpected things can happen, and if you never got around to signing up when they do, you’re out of luck. If you take a big step back, procrastinating on this is really shortsighted. Just do what I did—book appointments so you’ll actually do it.

I hope you’ll do it the same way I’d hope you’d take a shot with an experimental drug if you were sick and it were the one chance you had. Because it’s worth a try. Because it just might work. Because why the fuck not. And because Dylan Thomas said it best:

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


If you want to learn more—the Alcor FAQ and Ben Best’s FAQ are great ways to start. Both the Alcorand Cryonics Institute websites are full of information, and if you want to go a whole level deeper, dig into Alcor’s library (where you can also find cryopreservation case reports) or this collection of cryonics-related journal articles. Many more sources are listed below.

If you want to help or get involved—you can donate to Alcor or CI or volunteer to help at Alcor. Alcor lists some specific types of people they need help from at the bottom of this page.


get the pdf

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If you’d like to support Wait But Why, here’s our Patreon.


If you liked this post, you’ll want to read these:

What Makes You You? – A post that uses mind-bending thought experiments to dig into the weirdest, hardest cryonics question

The AI Revolution: The Road to Superintelligence – Something that might be way better at helping us conquer mortality than cryonics (or the opposite and it’ll extinct us)

How (and Why) SpaceX Will Colonize Mars – Like cryonics except instead of trying to extend a person’s life, it’s trying to extend the species’ life

Or, for something less heavy, this makes me feel not that scared about cryonics causing overpopulation.



Alcor’s website is a great resource, especially their main FAQ, their science FAQ, and their library. They also have a substantial YouTube page. I got the idea for the plane going down / experimental parachutes metaphor from the video testimonial of Alcor member Andrew Popper – thanks Andrew.

The other thing from this post that was inspired from outside work is the concept of death as an overlord, which is loosely based on the storyline of Nick Bostrom’s The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant, where the role of death is played by a dragon. If you liked that part of the post, definitely read the fable.

The Cryonics Institute also has a lot of good information, especially the FAQ of Ben Best, their ex-president.

I feel bad having focused only on Alcor and CI in this post and ignoring the smaller but spirited KrioRusoutside of Moscow. Here’s a good article from FT Magazine (by Courtney Weaver) that focuses on them.

Here’s a collection of cryonics-related journal articles. Here’s another.

Here are a handful of cryopreservation case reports.

Scientist and cryonicist Ralph Merkle nicely articulates a bunch of the stuff I talked about on his website. A lot of people compare the “why the fuck not?” argument for cryonics with Pascal’s Wager. Merkle doesn’t think it’s a great comparison – here’s why.

This is a pretty riveting This American Life episode about cryonics. It focuses on the early days of the movement in the ’60s and ’70s, honing in on a notorious cryonics disaster. And here’s a Stuff You Should Know about cryonics.

letter by 60 scientists arguing that cryonics should be taken seriously in the science world.

Eliezer Yudkowsky finds a way of popping his head into like a third of the posts I write as I research. He has a bunch of interesting stuff to say about cryonics. Here’s one thing. Here’s another.

Two great recent articles about cryonics: One from Motherboard (by Brian Merchant) about a dying two-year-old girl whose parents made her the world’s youngest cryonics patient. And one from the NY Times (by Amy Harmon) that I referenced at the end of the post about a 23-year-old who signed up with Alcor before she died of a brain tumor.

An interesting Reddit AMA with a cryonics member.

An article from Newsweek (by Anthony Cuthbertson) about the Feb 2016 rabbit-brain-vitrifying breakthrough.

I only read excerpts of this, but here’s Robert Ettinger’s famous book that launched the cryonics movement in the early ’60s.

An interesting New York Magazine article (by Kerry Howley) that explores the phenomenon of family conflict over cryonics.

An Atlantic article (by Rose Eveleth) about the cryonics process. Alcor has a good page on the procedure too. So does CI.

Meet Michael Hendricks, a smart scientist who thinks cryonics is horse shitHere’s another skepticAnd another. Alcor refutes skeptics with this page and this page, and it admits problems with cryonics here.

Alcor’s pricing. And CI’s.

A video nicely articulating the case for cryonics by Alcor’s CEO Max More.

Pelley: The 12-year-old prodigy whose “first language” is Mozart

The 12-year-old prodigy whose “first language” is Mozart

Alma Deutscher was playing piano and violin by the time she was 3 years old and wrote her first opera at 10. For her, making music seems as natural as breathing

We cannot explain what you are about to hear. Science doesn’t know enough about the brain to make sense of Alma. Alma Deutscher is an accomplished British composer in the classical style. She is a virtuoso on the piano and the violin. And she is 12 years old. She’s different from other prodigies we have known, because at the age of ten she wrote an opera, which demands comprehensive mastery; not just how to play the piano, but, what is the range of the oboe? What can a cellist play? We don’t know how she understands it all. It seems that Alma was born that way.


Correspondent Scott Pelley and Alma Deutscher


Scott Pelley: What is your earliest musical memory?

Alma Deutscher: I remember that when I was three, and I listened to this really beautiful lullaby by Richard Strauss, and that was when I really first realized how much I loved music. And I asked my parents, “But how can music be so beautiful?”

Those notes of Richard Strauss ignited a universe. At three, Alma was playing piano and violin.

Scott Pelley: When did the composing begin?

Alma Deutscher: When I was four, I just had these melodies and ideas in my head, and I would play them down at the piano. And sometimes my parents would think that I was just remembering music that I’d already heard before. But I said, “No, no, these are my melodies, that I composed.”

“For me, it’s strange to walk around and not to have melodies popping into my head.”

This past summer, in Austria, we watched Alma prepare her violin concerto and the premiere of her piano concerto. Joji Hattori conducts the vienna chamber orchestra.

That night, the soloist was the composer herself. Remember, she wrote all the notes for all the instruments.

We could see, Alma was living a story.

A story of loss.

A story of redemption.

Scales of emotion beyond a child.

And yet her vision was almost like wisdom.

Scott Pelley: Do you have any idea where this comes from?

Alma Deutscher: I don’t really know, but it’s really very normal to me to go around — walk around and having melodies popping into my head. It’s the most normal thing in the world. For me, it’s strange to walk around and not to have melodies popping into my head. So if I was interviewing you, I would say, “Well, tell me Scott.  How does it feel not having melodies popping into your head?

Scott Pelley: It’s very quiet in my head.  I must say.


Alma Deutscher


But, it appears, it’s never quiet in hers. When she has nothing to do, the music flows from its mysterious source as fluently as breath.

Her parents, Guy and Janie, are professors. She teaches old English literature, Guy is a noted linguist. Both of them are amateur musicians.

Scott Pelley: Do you feel that there’s anything about Alma’s gift that you don’t understand?

Guy Deutscher: We don’t understand creativity. Does anyone? I mean I think that’s the crux of the mystery. Where does it come from? This melody popping into your head. It really is a volcano of imagination. It’s almost unstoppable.

It was Guy who taught her how to read music.

Guy Deutscher: I thought I was an amazing teacher because you know, I hardly had to–

Scott Pelley: You thought it was you!

Guy Deutscher: I thought it was me. I hardly had to say something and you know her piano teacher once said ‘it’s a bit difficult with Alma It’s difficult to teach her because one always has the sense she’d been there before.’

Janie Deutscher: She wouldn’t be able to imagine life without dreams and stories and music. That’s as unimaginable to her as it is strange for other people to think about a girl with melodies in her head.

Alma Deutscher: I love getting the melodies. It’s not at all difficult to me. I get them all the time. But then actually sitting down and developing the melodies and that’s the really difficult part, having to tell a real story with music.

“I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.”

The story Alma tells in her opera, is Cinderella, but it’s not the Cinderella you know.

It seemed demeaning to Alma that Cinderella was attractive because her feet were small so she cast Cinderella as a composer and the prince, as a poet.

Alma Deutscher: Cinderella finds a poem that was composed by the prince and she loves it and she’s inspired to put music to it. And in the ball she sings it to the prince.


Alma Deutscher


Alma Deutscher: I think that it makes much more sense if he falls in love with her because she composed this amazing melody to his poem, because he thinks that she’s his soul mate, because he understands her.

Scott Pelley: Well, people can fall in love with composers.

Alma Deutscher: Exactly.

Scott Pelley: I think this may be one of those times.

They fell in love with Cinderella in its first production in Vienna.

Scott Pelley: There is another composer who had an opera premiere in Vienna at the age of 11. Mozart. People compare you to Mozart. What do you think of that?

Alma Deutscher:  I know that they mean it to be very nice to compare me to Mozart.

Scott Pelley: It could be worse.

Alma Deutscher: Of course, I love Mozart and I would have loved him to be my teacher. But I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.

In Israel, Mozart joined Alma on stage, she played his piano concerto with a cadenza. In a cadenza, the orchestra stops and the soloist breaks away in music of her own making.

Alma Deutscher: It’s something that I composed because you see it’s a very early concerto of Mozart and the cadenza was very simple. It didn’t go to any different keys.

Alma Deutscher: And I composed quite a long one going to lots and lots of different keys doing lots of things in Mozart’s motifs.

Scott Pelley: So you improved the cadenza of Mozart?

Alma Deutscher: Well, yes.

Robert Gjerdingen is a professor of music at Northwestern in Chicago. He has been a consultant to Alma’s education.

Robert Gjerdingen: It’s kind of a comet that goes by and everybody looks up and just goes, “Wow.” I sent her some assignments when she was six, seven, where I expected her to crash and burn, because they were very difficult. It came back, it was like listening to a mid-18th century composer. She was a native speaker.

Scott Pelley: A native speaker?

Robert Gjerdingen: It’s her first language she speaks the Mozart-style. She speaks the style of Mendelssohn.

Scott Pelley: And the names that you just mentioned are the ones that live for centuries.

Robert Gjerdingen: Yes. She’s batting in the big leagues. And if you win the pennant, there’s immortality.

The route to immortality leads through California. In December, the Opera San Jose Orchestra will stage Cinderella in Alma’s American debut. She’ll be the belle of the ball, on the piano, organ and violin.


Alma Deutscher


Alma Deutscher: The piano music teachers say, “Well you must choose the piano.” And the violin music teachers say, “Oh you must choose the violin.” But anyway, that’s better than the piano teacher saying, “You must choose the violin.”

Scott Pelley: That would be a bad sign.

Alma Deutscher: That would be a bad sign, yes.

“I know that that life is not always beautiful. That there’s also ugliness in the world. That’s why I, I’ve learned, that I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.”

Fortunately she doesn’t have to choose. This is her composition, Violin Concerto Number One.

Alma Deutscher: It’s extremely jolly and very happy and jocular that movement. I want to make the people who listen to it laugh and be happy. The first movement of the violin concerto is quite the opposite. It’s very dark and dramatic.

Scott Pelley: What does a girl your age know about dark and dramatic?

Alma Deutscher: Well yes, that’s an interesting question because you know what?  I’m a very happy person so I have lots of imaginary composers. And one of them is called Antonin Yellowsink.

Antonin Yellowsink, Alma’s imaginary composing friend, is an insight into the music of her mind. Alma told us that she made up a country where imaginary composers write, each in his own style of emotion.

Scott Pelley: So how many composers do you have in your head?

Alma Deutscher: I have lots of composers. And sometimes when I’m stuck with something, when I’m composing, I go to them and ask them for advice. And quite often, they come up with very interesting things.

Even the real world is magical. The Deutscher’s moved to the English countryside to be near a famous school of music. Alma is privately tutored and homeschooled alongside her sister Helen who also knows her way around the piano and the tree house.

Scott Pelley: I usually don’t ask people your age this question, but, what have you learned about life?

Alma Deutscher: Well, I know that that life is not always beautiful. That there’s also ugliness in the world. That’s why I, I’ve learned, that I want to write beautiful music because I want to make the world a better place.

We cannot know how Alma Deutscher channels her music like a portal in time. But in a world, too often ugly, and too often overburdened with explanation, it’s nice to take a moment and wonder.

Produced by Robert G. Anderson and Aaron Weisz

  • Scott Pelley

    Correspondent, “60 Minutes”

Skenazy and Haidt: The Fragile Generation

One day last year, a citizen on a prairie path in the Chicago suburb of Elmhurst came upon a teen boy chopping wood. Not a body. Just some already-fallen branches. Nonetheless, the onlooker called the cops.

Officers interrogated the boy, who said he was trying to build a fort for himself and his friends. A local news site reports the police then “took the tools for safekeeping to be returned to the boy’s parents.”

Elsewhere in America, preschoolers at the Learning Collaborative in Charlotte, North Carolina, were thrilled to receive a set of gently used playground equipment. But the kids soon found out they would not be allowed to use it, because it was resting on grass, not wood chips. “It’s a safety issue,” explained a day care spokeswoman. Playing on grass is against local regulations.

And then there was the query that ran in Parents magazine a few years back: “Your child’s old enough to stay home briefly, and often does. But is it okay to leave her and her playmate home while you dash to the dry cleaner?” Absolutely not, the magazine averred: “Take the kids with you, or save your errand for another time.” After all, “you want to make sure that no one’s feelings get too hurt if there’s a squabble.”

The principle here is simple: This generation of kids must be protected like none other. They can’t use tools, they can’t play on grass, and they certainly can’t be expected to work through a spat with a friend.

And this, it could be argued, is why we have “safe spaces” on college campuses and millennials missing adult milestones today. We told a generation of kids that they can never be too safe—and they believed us.

Safety First

We’ve had the best of intentions, of course. But efforts to protect our children may be backfiring. When we raise kids unaccustomed to facing anything on their own, including risk, failure, and hurt feelings, our society and even our economy are threatened. Yet modern child-rearing practices and laws seem all but designed to cultivate this lack of preparedness. There’s the fear that everything children see, do, eat, hear, and lick could hurt them. And there’s a newer belief that has been spreading through higher education that words and ideas themselves can be traumatizing.

How did we come to think a generation of kids can’t handle the basic challenges of growing up?

Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons—including shifts in parenting norms, new academic expectations, increased regulation, technological advances, and especially a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant)—children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own. This has left them more fragile, more easily offended, and more reliant on others. They have been taught to seek authority figures to solve their problems and shield them from discomfort, a condition sociologists call “moral dependency.”

This poses a threat to the kind of open-mindedness and flexibility young people need to thrive at college and beyond. If they arrive at school or start careers unaccustomed to frustration and misunderstandings, we can expect them to be hypersensitive. And if they don’t develop the resources to work through obstacles, molehills come to look like mountains.

This magnification of danger and hurt is prevalent on campus today. It no longer matters what a person intended to say, or how a reasonable listener would interpret a statement—what matters is whether any individual feels offended by it. If so, the speaker has committed a “microaggression,” and the offended party’s purely subjective reaction is a sufficient basis for emailing a dean or filing a complaint with the university’s “bias response team.” The net effect is that both professors and students today report that they are walking on eggshells. This interferes with the process of free inquiry and open debate—the active ingredients in a college education.

And if that’s the case already, what of the kids still in grammar school, constantly reminded they might accidentally hurt each other with the wrong words? When today’s 8-year-olds become the 18-year-olds starting college, will they still view free speech as worthy of protecting? As Daniel Shuchman, chairman of the free speech-promoting Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), puts it, “How likely are they to consider the First Amendment essential if they start learning in fifth grade that you’re forbidden to say—or even think—certain things, especially at school?”

Parents, teachers, and professors are talking about the growing fragility they see. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the overprotection of children and the hypersensitivity of college students could be two sides of the same coin. By trying so hard to protect our kids, we’re making them too safe to succeed.

Children on a Leash

If you’re over 40, chances are good that you had scads of free time as a child—after school, on weekends, over the summer. And chances are also good that, if you were asked about it now, you’d go on and on about playing in the woods and riding your bike until the streetlights came on.

Today many kids are raised like veal. Only 13 percent of them even walk to school. Many who take the bus wait at the stop with parents beside them like bodyguards. For a while, Rhode Island was considering a bill that would prohibit children from getting off the bus in the afternoon if there wasn’t an adult waiting to walk them home. This would have applied until seventh grade.

As for summer frolicking, campers don’t just have to take a buddy with them wherever they go, including the bathroom. Some are now required to take two—one to stay with whoever gets hurt, the other to run and get a grown-up. Walking to the john is treated like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.

After school, kids no longer come home with a latchkey and roam the neighborhood. Instead, they’re locked into organized, supervised activities. Youth sports are a $15 billion business that has grown by 55 percent since just 2010. Children as young as third grade are joining traveling teams—which means their parents spend a lot of time in the car, too. Or they’re at tutoring. Or they’re at music lessons. And if all else fails, they are in their rooms, online.

Even if parents want to shoo their kids outside—and don’t come home till dinner!—it’s not as easy as it once was. Often, there are no other children around to play with. Even more dishearteningly, adults who believe it’s good for young people to run some errands or play kickball down the street have to think twice about letting them, because busybodies, cops, and social workers are primed to equate “unsupervised” with “neglected and in danger.”

You may remember the story of the Meitivs in Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home together from the park. Or the Debra Harrell case in South Carolina, where a mom was thrown in jail for allowing her 9-year-old to play at the sprinkler playground while she worked at McDonald’s. Or the 8-year-old Ohio boy who was supposed to get on the bus to Sunday school, but snuck off to the Family Dollar store instead. His dad was arrested for child endangerment.

These examples represent a new outlook: the belief that anytime kids are doing anything on their own, they are automatically under threat. But that outlook is wrong. The crime rate in America is back down to what it was in 1963, which means that most of today’s parents grew up playing outside when it was more dangerous than it is today. And it hasn’t gotten safer because we’re hovering over our kids. All violent crime is down, including against adults.

Danger Things

And yet it doesn’t feel safer. A 2010 study found “kidnapping” to be the top parental fear, despite the fact that merely being a passenger in a car is far more dangerous. Nine kids were kidnapped and murdered by strangers in 2011, while 1,140 died in vehicles that same year. While Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker writes in 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature that life in most countries is safer today than at any time in human history, the press keeps pushing paranoia. This makes stepping back feel doubly risky: There’s the fear of child kidnappers and the fear of Child Protective Services.

At times, it seems like our culture is conjuring dangers out of thin air, just to have something new to worry about. Thus, the Boulder Public Library in Colorado recently forbade anyone under 12 to enter without an adult, because “children may encounter hazards such as stairs, elevators, doors, furniture, electrical equipment, or other library patrons.” Ah, yes, kids and library furniture. Always a lethal combo.

Happily, the library backed off that rule, perhaps thanks to merciless mocking in the media. But saner minds don’t always prevail. At Mesa Elementary School, which also happens to be in Boulder, students got a list of the items they could not bring to the science fair. These included “chemicals,” “plants in soil,” and “organisms (living or dead).” And we wonder why American children score so low on international tests.

But perhaps the single best example of how fantastically fearful we’ve become occurred when the city of Richland, Washington, got rid of all the swings on its school playgrounds. The love of swinging is probably older than humanity itself, given our arboreal origins. But as a school district spokesman explained, “Swings have been determined to be the most unsafe of all the playground equipment on a playground.”

You may think your town has avoided such overkill, but is there a merry-go-round at your local park, or a see-saw? Most likely they, too, have gone the way of lawn darts. The Consumer Product Safety Commission even warns parks of “tripping hazards, like…tree stumps and rocks,” a fact unearthed (so to speak) by Philip Howard, author of 2010’s Life Without Lawyers.

The problem is that kids learn by doing. Trip over a tree stump and you learn to look down. There’s an old saying: Prepare your child for the path, not the path for your child. We’re doing the opposite.

Ironically, there are real health dangers in not walking, or biking, or hopping over that stump. A Johns Hopkins study this summer found that the typical 19-year-old is as sedentary as a 65-year-old. The Army is worried that its recruits don’t know how to skip or do somersaults.

But the cost of shielding kids from risks goes well beyond the physical, as a robust body of research has shown.

Of Trophies and Traumas

A few years ago, Boston College psychology professor emeritus Peter Gray was invited by the head of counseling services at a major university to a conference on “the decline in resilience among students.” The organizer said that emergency counseling calls had doubled in the last five years. What’s more, callers were seeking help coping with everyday problems, such as arguments with a roommate. Two students had dialed in because they’d found a mouse in their apartment. They also called the police, who came and set a mousetrap. And that’s not to mention the sensitivity around grades. To some students, a B is the end of the world. (To some parents, too.)

Free play has little in common with the “play” we give children today. In organized activities, adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

Part of the rise in calls could be attributed to the fact that admitting mental health issues no longer carries the stigma it once did, an undeniably positive development. But it could also be a sign, Gray realized, that failing at basic “adulting” no longer carries the stigma it once did. And that is far more troubling.

Is this outcome the apotheosis of participation-trophy culture? It’s easy to scoff at a society that teaches kids that everything they do deserves applause. But more disturbing is the possibility that those trophies taught kids the opposite lesson: that they’re so easily hurt, they can’t handle the sad truth that they’re not the best at something.

Not letting your kid climb a tree because he might fall robs him of a classic childhood experience. But being emotionally overprotective takes away something else. “We have raised a generation of young people who have not been given the opportunity to…experience failure and realize they can survive it,” Gray has said. When Lenore’s son came in eighth out of nine teams in a summer camp bowling league, he got an eighth-place trophy. The moral was clear: We don’t think you can cope with the negative emotions of finishing second-to-last.

Of course, it’s natural to want to see kids happy. But the real secret to happiness isn’t more high fives; it’s developing emotional resilience. In our mania for physical safety, coupled with our recent tendency to talk about “emotional safety,” we have systematically deprived our children of the thousands of challenging—and sometimes upsetting—experiences that they need in order to learn that resiliency. And in our quest to protect them, we have stolen from children the best resilience training known to man: free play.

Play’s the Thing

All mammals play. It is a drive installed by Mother Nature. Hippos do backflips in the water. Dogs fetch sticks. And gazelles run around, engaging in a game that looks an awful lot like tag.

Why would they do that? They’re wasting valuable calories and exposing themselves to predators. Shouldn’t they just sit quietly next to their mama gazelles, exploring the world through the magic of PBS Kids?

It must be because play is even more important to their long-term survival than simply being “safe.” Gray’s main body of research is on the importance of free play, and he stresses that it has little in common with the “play” we give kids today. In organized activities—Little League, for example—adults run the show. It’s only when the grown-ups aren’t around that the kids get to take over. Play is training for adulthood.

In free play, ideally with kids of mixed ages, the children decide what to do and how to do it. That’s teamwork, literally. The little kids desperately want to be like the bigger kids, so instead of bawling when they strike out during a sandlot baseball game, they work hard to hold themselves together. This is the foundation of maturity.

The older kids, meanwhile, throw the ball more softly to the younger ones. They’re learning empathy. And if someone yells, “Let’s play on just one leg!”—something they couldn’t do at Little League, with championships (and trophies!) on the line—the kids discover what it means to come up with and try out a different way of doing things. In Silicon Valley terms, they “pivot” and adopt a “new business model.” They also learn that they, not just grown-ups, can collectively remake the rules to suit their needs. That’s called participatory democracy.

Best of all, without adults intervening, the kids have to do all the problem solving for themselves, from deciding what game to play to making sure the teams are roughly equal. Then, when there’s an argument, they have to resolve it themselves. That’s a tough skill to learn, but the drive to continue playing motivates them to work things out. To get back to having fun, they first have to come up with a solution, so they do. This teaches them that they can disagree, hash it out, and—perhaps with some grumbling—move on.

These are the very skills that are suddenly in short supply on college campuses.

“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems and generally take control of their own lives,” Gray writes in 2013’s Free to Learn (Basic Books). “Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.”

Unstructured, unsupervised time for play is one of the most important things we have to give back to kids if we want them to be strong and happy and resilient.

Where Have All the Paperboys Gone?

It’s not just that kids aren’t playing much on their own. These days, they’re not doing much of anything on their own. In an article in The Atlantic, Hanna Rosin admits that “when my daughter was 10, my husband and I suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult.”

In earlier generations, this would have seemed a bizarre and wildly overprotective upbringing. Society had certain age-related milestones that most people agreed on. Kids might be trusted to walk to school by first grade. They might get a latchkey at 8, take on a newspaper route around 10, start babysitting at 12. But over the past generation or so, those milestones disappeared—buried by fears of kidnapping, the rise of supervised activities, and the pre-eminence of homework. Parents today know all about the academic milestones their kids are supposed to reach, but not about the moments when kids used to start joining the world.

It’s not necessarily their fault. Calls to eight newspapers in North Carolina found none that would take anyone under the age of 18 to deliver papers. A police chief in New Albany, Ohio, went on record saying kids shouldn’t be outside on their own till age 16, “the threshold where you see children getting a little bit more freedom.” A study in Britain found that while just under half of all 16- to 17-year-olds had jobs as recently as 1992, today that number is 20 percent.

The responsibility expected of kids not so long ago has become almost inconceivable. Published in 1979, the book Your 6-Year-old: Loving and Defiant includes a simple checklist for what a child entering first grade should be able to do: Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored? Can he ride a small two-wheeled bicycle without helper wheels? Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to a store, school, playground, or friend’s home?

Hang on. Walk to the store at 6—alone?

It’s tempting to blame “helicopter parents” for today’s less resilient kids. But when all the first-graders are walking themselves to school, it’s easy to add yours to the mix. When your child is the only one, it’s harder. And that’s where we are today. Norms have dramatically changed. The kind of freedom that seemed unremarkable a generation ago has become taboo, and in some cases even illegal.

A Very Hampered Halloween

In Waynesboro, Georgia, “trick or treaters” must be 12 or younger; they must be in a costume; and they must be accompanied by an adult at least 21 years of age. So if you have kids who are 15, 10, and 8, you can’t send them out together. The 15-year-old is not allowed to dress up, yet she won’t be considered old enough to supervise her siblings for another six years. And this is on the one night of the entire year we traditionally let children pretend to be adults.

Other schools and community centers now send letters home asking parents not to let their children wear scary costumes. Some even organize “trunk or treats”—cars parked in a circle, trunks open and filled with candy, thus saving the kids from having to walk around the neighborhood or knock on doors. (That would be tiring and terrifying.) If this is childhood, is it any wonder college kids also expect to be micromanaged on Halloween?

At Yale in 2015, after 13 college administrators signed a letter outlining appropriate vs. inappropriate costume choices for students, the childhood development expert and campus lecturer Erika Christakis suggested that it would be better to allow kids to think for themselves. After all, Halloween is supposed to be about pushing boundaries. “Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little obnoxious…or, yes, offensive?” she wrote. “Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity—your capacity—to ignore or reject things that trouble you?”

Apparently, yes. Angry students mobbed her husband, the professor Nicholas Christakis, surrounding him in the courtyard of the residential college where he served as master. They screamed obscenities and demanded he apologize for believing, along with his wife, that college students are in fact capable of handling offensive costumes on Halloween. “Be quiet!” a student shouted at him at one point. “As master, it is your job to create a place of comfort and home for the students!” She did not take kindly to his response that, to the contrary, he sees it as his job to create a space where students can grow intellectually.

As it turns out, Halloween is the perfect Petri dish for observing what we have done to childhood. We didn’t think anything was safe enough for young people. And now we are witnessing the results.

No Fun and No Joy

When parents curtail their kids’ independence, they’re not just depriving the younglings of childhood fun. They are denying themselves the grown-up joy of seeing their kids do something smart, brave, or kind without parental guidance.

It’s the kind of joy described by a Washington Post columnist who answered the phone one day and was shocked to find her 8-year-old son on the other end. He’d accidentally gone home when he was supposed to stay after school. Realizing she wasn’t there, he decided to walk to the store a few blocks away—his first time. The mom raced over, fearing God knows what, and rushed in only to find her son happily helping the shopkeeper stock the shelves with meat. He’d had a snack and done his homework, too. It was an afternoon he’d never forget, and neither would his very proud mother.

When we don’t let our kids do anything on their own, we don’t get to see just how competent they can be—and isn’t that, ultimately, the greatest reward of parenting? We need to make it easier for grown-ups to let go while living in a society that keeps warning them not to. And we need to make sure they won’t get arrested for it.

What Is To Be Done?

By trying to keep children safe from all risks, obstacles, hurt feelings, and fears, our culture has taken away the opportunities they need to become successful adults. In treating them as fragile—emotionally, socially, and physically—society actually makes them so.

To combat this problem, we have established a new nonpartisan nonprofit, the Let Grow Foundation. Our goal is to restore resilience by overthrowing the culture of overprotection. We teamed up with Gray, the professor whose research we highlighted above, and FIRE’s Shuchman, a New York investment fund manager who is now our chairman.

We are building an organization that seeks to change the social norms, policies, and laws that pressure and intimidate parents, schools, and towns into coddling their kids. We will research the effects of excessive caution, study the link between independence and success, and launch projects to give kids back some free time and free play. Most of all, the Let Grow Foundation will reject the assumption of fragility and promote intellectual, physical, and emotional resilience.

Children know that their parents had more freedom to roam than they do, and more unscheduled time to read or tinker or explore. They also realize that older generations were trusted to roll with some punches, at school and beyond. We hope kids today will start demanding that same independence and respect for themselves. It’s their freedom that has been chiseled away, after all.

We want them to insist on their right to engage not just with the physical world, but also with the world of ideas. We want them to hear, read, and voice opinions that go against the grain. We want them to be insulted by the assumption that they and their classmates are so easily hurt that arguments must stop before they start. To this end, we hope to encourage their skepticism about the programs and policies that are ostensibly there to “protect” them from discomfort.

If this effort is successful, we’ll soon see kids outside again. Common setbacks will be considered “resilience moments” rather than traumas. Children will read widely, express themselves freely, and work through disagreements without automatically calling on authority figures to solve their problems for them. The more adults step back, the more we believe kids will step up, growing brave in the face of risk and just plain happy in their independence.

Children today are safer and smarter than this culture gives them credit for. They deserve the freedom we had. The country’s future prosperity and freedom depend on it.

Photo Credit: Joanna Andreasson

Lenore Skenazy is founder of the book and blog Free-Range Kids, and president of the nonprofit Let Grow Foundation.

Jonathan Haidt is the Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, author of The Righteous Mind (Pantheon Books), and a co-founder and board member of Let Grow.