David Rakoff – Cryonics: Big Issues: GQ

Death is the numinous presence that hovers over the fifth Extreme Life Extension Conference. The three-day meeting is sponsored by Alcor, the Arizona cryonics company that has put the body of Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer Ted Williams in cryogenic suspension, in the hope he may one day rise again. Like worshipers at a weekend-long Easter Mass, about 150 scientists and acolytes have gathered to hear the Good News about the latest developments in securing their own resurrections and immortality. Here, death is viewed as little more than a nuisance, a persistent gnat to be batted away. Death is certainly not going to ruin anyone’s fun. As chairman Ralph Merkle, a nanotechnologist from Palo Alto, California, said when he kicked things off, “This conference is about, by and for people who think life is a pretty good thing and that more life is better.” Even the landscape surrounding the hotel seems imbued with optimism: rolling manicured lawns, palm trees and flower beds planted with murderously orange canna lilies, sloping gently down to the emerald golf links of Orange County.

Freitas continues: “This holocaust we call natural death produces 2.4 million deaths annually in the United States alone. The human death toll in 2001 was nearly 55 million people. The worst disasters in human history pale in comparison to natural death.” Freitas goes on to liken the richness of each person—his knowledge as opposed to, say, the street value of his hair and gold fillings—to the equivalent of at least one book. That’s a “destruction” equivalent to three Libraries of Congress per year. Further, if you agree that some people are more than one book, then it’s even more devastating. If, however, you feel that some folks’ book is The Prince of Tides, or that others of us add up to all the complexity of a document, frequently pink, titled “While You Were Out,” then it’s a tragedy of lesser magnitude.

Like many here, Freitas is a nanotechnologist. Nanotechnology is the Holy Grail of what’s to come for cryonics—the thing that will make bringing patients out of cryosuspension possible. He talks about a future in which an array of intelligent nanodevices will be dispatched into our bodies like so many Fantastic Voyage Raquel Welches, their sole mission our intracorporeal perfection. Many of the methods he cites are theoretically feasible: chromosome-replacement therapy (microscopic cell-by-cell damage repair); respirocytes (artificial red blood cells that would enable us to sink to the bottom of a pool and hold our breath for four hours); microbivores (artificial white blood cells that would be one hundred times more effective than the real thing). All of these, says Freitas, could potentially restore us to the perfection of our youth.

“A rollback to the physiology of your late teens might be easier than your 10-year-old self,” he says, “and more fun. We could live about 900 years.” A terrifying prospect, since everyone else would also be 18 again, and that ruthless food chain of those miserable years would reign once more. Only this time, high school would be nine centuries long. That’s close to a millennium’s worth of blackheads.

The grand fantasy of cheating death, the underlying myth at the heart of this conference, is as old as humanity itself. Most every culture has a cautionary tale about some soul who aspires to godlike immortality and is brought low as a result. Not surprisingly, the disastrous hubris of Icarus is not invoked here. What is brought up repeatedly as a worthy precedent is a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend in 1773: “I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira wine, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!”

The intervening twenty-three decades since Franklin’s missive have done little to make that dream practical.



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