Spotlight on research: professor examines the history and sociology of cryonic suspension

March 2, 2016 by Rachel Scharf, Features Editor

Professor Grant Shoffstall works in science and technology studies, and specializes in pseudoscience and cryonic suspension. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

Professor Grant Shoffstall works in science and technology studies, and specializes in pseudoscience and cryonic suspension. Emory Strawn/Photo Editor.

Grant Shoffstall is currently a visiting professor of sociology at the College. Like many others, he is involved in highly interesting research that fills a unique niche in academia. Shoffstall works in an interdisciplinary field known as science and technology studies (STS), which includes aspects of history, sociology and philosophy of technology. As a historical sociologist, Shoffstall’s specific area of expertise within STS is pseudoscience.

“I’m interested in how pseudoscience is deployed and how and when something is labeled pseudoscience,” Shoffstall said.

“Something is oftentimes labeled pseudoscience because it’s posing a threat to the way that science is being done for any variety of reasons in a given context, and what I like to do is attend to instances in which something has been termed pseudoscience and investigate the conditions under which that category was put out there.”

Currently, Shoffstall’s research on pseudoscience focuses on the fascinating phenomenon of cryonics.

“I’m writing a book right now on the history of cryonic suspension,” he said. “[Cryonic suspension] is the process of freezing human corpses in the hopes that medical doctors will at some point have the requisite technology to facilitate the reanimation of the de-animated.”

Many, including myself, have heard of cryogenic suspension in the context of Walt Disney – legend has it that Disney lies frozen, waiting for technology to catch and up reanimate his body. Shoffstall revealed that this story is in fact untrue.

“That’s one of the popular misconceptions. He’s actually not frozen – Walt Disney was not placed in cryonic suspension. He was cremated, and his ashes are in a famous cemetery in Los Angeles. Ted Williams, the famous baseball player, actually is in cryonic suspension,” Shoffstall said.

Although this may disappoint some Disney fans, Shoffstall’s research illuminates information that makes cryonics an incredibly compelling topic beyond myths about the famous creator of Mickey Mouse.

Shoffstall’s book looks into the process by which cryonic suspension was labeled as pseudoscience in the 1960s. During the investigation, he has made some incredibly fascinating discoveries.

“My research has turned up that in fact the process of freezing human beings wasn’t entirely outside the techno-scientific norm in the 1960s,” Shoffstall said. “In fact, part of what I try to do is to reconnect the history of cryonic suspension to various aspects of the Space Race.”

Shoffstall discovered that there is a direct connection between the development of cryonics and the Space Race.

“NASA was funding research in the 1960s into animation techniques [that could] facilitate long-term space travel, and part of what my research has turned up is that there were various scientific lay-actors who were trying to do the same thing – to freeze people, not for the purpose of facilitating space flight, but for purposes of ushering them into a future where technologies would exist that they thought would be able to reanimate those who lay in cryonic suspension,” Shoffstall said.

Shoffstall originally became involved in his research into cryonic suspension by an accident of sorts.

“I got interested in it as an undergraduate when I just happened to be taking a sociology of religion course at the same time that I was taking a sociology of death and dying course, and the topic of cryonic suspension came up in both of them,” he said. “So I started doing some digging … and I noticed that all the scholarly treatments of cryonics weren’t citing those materials” put out by cryonics organizations in the 1960s.

This vacancy inspired Shoffstall to take initiative and dive into cryonics research.

“I wrote directly to the cryonics organizations, and it took me a long time to gain their trust, but they even-tually gave me access to these materials that no one was using,” he said. “It was in the context of sorting through those archival materials that I discovered this relationship with the Cold War Space Race, which is ultimately serving as the basis for this book project.”

Shoffstall has enjoyed applying his research to his visiting professorship at the College by designing engaging courses in his areas of expertise.

“I’ve been able to use my research as a basis to develop courses in STS that students have found to be very interesting, and I’m letting the enrollments speak for themselves – the enrollments in my courses have been quite high,” he said.

Shoffstall’s experience so far at the College has given him the chance to teach wide-ranging and interdisciplinary courses on topics as diverse as medicine and the Cold War.

This semester, he’s teaching a technology, culture and society course that broadly introduces students to his field.

“Williams has really been very receptive to allowing me to experiment with the traditional disciplinary course format and have very interdisciplinary courses that introduce students to various aspects of STS,” he said.

Shoffstall truly appreciates the value of teaching alongside researching, and has had a hugely positive experience doing both at the College.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to find myself in,” he said.

“[I’ve enjoyed] putting to work the research that I’ve done on this book in a course format [and] really developing a synergy between my teaching and my research with very interesting students.”

 

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