Higher Education: Suspended Animation & Time Travel

Higher Education: Suspended Animation & Time Travel

By renowned scientist Mark Roth.

The third lecture of The Goodship’s Academy of Higher Education promised a cosmic ride, and cell biologist at Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center, Dr. Mark Roth, beautifully piloted the mind-bending journey.


Roth has spent the last decade working on suspended animation research: the slowing or stopping of life processes like breathing or heart rate for extended periods of time, and then reviving the organism without causing any neurological harm.  He uses a chemical process to induce suspended animation, and Roth’s work shows that the techniques also work on humans. Students of the Higher Education lecture were asked to come prepared by watching Roth’s TED2010 talk, “Suspended animation is within our grasp,” to get a foundational understanding of the science behind suspended animation, and begin to understand it’s incredible potential to save human lives. This set the stage for the newest implication of Dr. Roth’s fascinating research, and topic of November 18th’s discussion: Altered states, can we control time?

Roth started by taking the audience through several different traditional concepts of, and thought experiments related to, time. With all attendees on board and premises freshly in mind, he used the results of his research to argue that perhaps suspended animation is a form of time control.


The untrodden nature of Roth’s radical ideas meant that his full talk had to stay within the four walls of The Cloud Room. Fortunately, Charles Mudede, Jed Dunkerley, Ben Lindbloom, and Dr. Rachel Tompa were all in attendance, logging their experiences and sharing the enchantment of the evening.




Tonight Goodship’s lecture was delivered by Mark Roth, a scientist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and a recent winner of a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Why does Roth deserve to be classified as a genius? Because he may very well be to biology what Einstein was to physics. This comparison is not by any means an exaggeration. With confidence, one can say that the 18th century discovered Newtonian time. The 20th century, Einsteinian time. And the 21st century, which has witnessed several revolutions in biology, will be seen by those in the future as the moment we discovered Rothian time.

What I mean by this is that Albert Einstein broke with the Newtonian understanding of time as uniform or absolute. His mathematics revealed that time is not the same for all, that it is relative to the observer.

Roth essentially radicalizes Einstein by proposing that time is a created thing, a thing made by the animal (mouse, dog, human, and so on) that experiences it. Time is not outside of you, but is you.

His lecture opened by explaining the famous thought experiment in special relativity. What happens is this: twins, who are born at the same time, one day separate. One goes to space in a very fast rocket and the other stays on Earth. Both have on them clocks that are synchronized and keep perfect time. When the twin in the rocket returns to Earth 6 months later, to his/her surprise, their brother/sister has aged significantly. But neither of them experienced a difference in the flow of time. What this thought experiment revealed to physicists is that gravity and velocity might influence, indeed, warp time. Time is not absolute but relative. The theory of the twins was tested and proved in the 1970s.

Now, the work Roth does at his lab needs to be considered in the light of this thought experiment, but with this crucial distinction: For him time is change. Without change, there can be no time. Without change, time is meaningless. This, I believe, is a conception of time that could only be conceived by a biologist. Evolution, the defining theory of this science, is nothing but change.

The thing to grasp at this point is: What Roth’s theory does is separate the classic thought experiment of the twins from gravity and velocity and connects it with animals, with beings.

His thought experiment is this: Twin animals were conceived within minutes of each one another on a Monday. Because the twins are genetically identical, both take exactly two days to reach maturity and reproduce. The twin animals are separated in this way: One is permitted to grow naturally, and the other is placed into suspended animation. The former is active; they latter is inactive. When the latter is reanimated two days latter, Wednesday, it finds itself to be much younger than the former, which has not only aged considerably in two days but has also reproduced. And its offspring are also older than the reanimated twin.

The way Roth reads this thought experiment, which he has tested and observed in his lab, is that the animated animal changed in time and the other experienced no change, and therefore no time. But not changing should mean something is dead. But, clearly, the reanimated animal is not dead. So, what is going on? Where was this thing when it wasn’t doing anything? Here, the scientist turns to philosophy: It was in the “eternal present.” Death is, for sure, eternal, but what is suggested here is that eternity is not one, absolute thing. It has several flavors. There is, for one, the eternal eternal (death); and, for another, the eternal present (a living thing in suspended animation).

A note to myself: All of this talk about eternity and twins reminded me of a beloved passage in Vladimir Nabokov’s Proustian memoir Speak, Memory: “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”

The heart of Roth’s 21st century theory of time is this: A living thing (being) creates its time. Meaning, there is not being and time. Being is time. A living thing does not enter time, it is time. And in the way our expanding universe does not go into space but creates it as it expands, we create time as we live.

What this way of thinking allowed Roth to see is: If time is life, than controlling some of the processes life, the processes of change, will change time.

The heart is the organ at the core of Roth’s research, and where his theory of time is proving to be vital. When a person has a heart attack, what happens is the heart goes into suspended animation. And if it is reanimated by a doctor, which often happens, that heart returns much older. It returns like that character in the movie Interstellar: so aged, so time-worn. This situation leads to chronic heart failure.

In Roth’s lab, the poetic, the philosophic, and the scientific meet.

Roth concluded the lecture by stressing that his one goal in life is to make the world realize that we can control time. This idea would have made Einstein’s head spin.




Our favorite sketch artist, Jed Dunkerley, returned to Lecture 3 of Higher Education to record Mark Roth’s talk via an illustrative ride through the esoteric experience.

goodship-academy-higher-education-jed-dunkerly-1 goodship-academy-higher-education-jed-dunkerly-2



Local photographer, Ben Lindbloom, joined us and captured the animated fun of Roth’s de-animated concepts.



A member of Fred Hutch News Service, Dr. Rachel Tompa, expertly captured Roth’s story in her article, “Do we create our own time?


Tompa summarizes key scientific concepts of Roth’s talk, and their implications on the future of medicine:


Roth’s “evil plan,” as he semi-jokingly described it to the Goodship audience, is to use his research to fix a large enough problem facing humanity that people will sit up and pay attention to his radical ideas.

He and his colleagues have discovered that they can apply suspended animation principles not only to entire organisms in the lab, but to specific parts of the human body. Namely, they believe they can put parts of the human heart into suspended animation to rescue the organ from possibly fatal injury following a heart attack.


Heart disease is the biggest killer of adult Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most of that death is due to reperfusion injury, Roth said. He thinks he can do something about it.


Don’t miss her full article, which can be found here on the Fred Hutch website.


A huge thanks from The Goodship Company to all those who joined us for the third lecture of The Goodship Academy of Higher Education. To Charles, Jed, Ben and Rachel, thank you for capturing the magic of the evening in your own unique ways, and for providing your artwork to share with others.