X-Message-Number: 20112
From: "Steve Harris" <>
References: <>
Subject: Major Article on Cryonics in Miami Herald
Date: Thu, 19 Sep 2002 19:20:05 -0600

The following article appearing recently in the Miami Herald was written by
a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who talked a length to a lot of
cryonicists to write it. Alas, he talked to a lot of "establishment type"
scientists, as well.

Preserving bodies for the future - science or science fiction?

 The feud over what to do with the remains of Ted Williams has rekindled
the cryonics debate.

 SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Pearl Harbor veteran Hugh Hixon Sr. wasn't a sports
fan. He probably heard of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams but almost
certainly never saw him hit any of his 521 home runs.

Yet Hixon might still have a chance to meet the legendary ''Splendid
Splinter'' -- decades, or perhaps centuries, after both were declared
legally dead.

That is the passionate, if not bizarre, hope of their children, who
arranged to have their fathers cryogenically preserved -- frozen -- on the
chance that science one day will figure out how to bring them back to life.

''I have no idea what remains [of my father],'' said Hugh Hixon Jr. ``But I
have retained the option of finding out.''

Hixon and other advocates of cryonics -- the practice of freezing recently
dead bodies for eventual resuscitation -- are undeterred that no technology
exists that can freeze something as large as a human body without causing
catastrophic cellular damage.

Critics -- which include nearly all mainstream scientists -- dismiss the
optimism of cryonicists as wildly exaggerated and fanciful.

''They are effectively destroying the body and preserving the pieces,
hoping someone in the future can put the pieces back together,'' observed
Georgia Institute of Technology professor Jens Karlsson, an expert in
cryogenic tissue preservation. Cryonics, he said, ``is generally viewed as
a fringe pseudoscience.''

Most cryobiologists -- scientists who study the effects of cold on animal
and plant tissue -- abhor the topic.

''The largest society in the field, the Society of Cryobiology, explicitly
states in its bylaws that those practicing cryonics are not allowed in the
society and will be removed if discovered,'' said a prominent cryobiologist
and member of the society's board of directors, who asked that he not be


After languishing for 40 years on the fringes of science fiction, an
extraordinary public feud between three of Ted Williams' children has
thrust cryonics into the public spotlight.

Two had Williams' body frozen and preserved, claiming he agreed to the
procedure before his death. Their half-sister is fighting for his
cremation, as his 1996 will specifies. A preliminary court hearing is set
for Oct. 3. A full-fledged hearing could come later.

The media interest is a godsend for Jerry Lemler, president of the Alcor
Life Extension Foundation of Scottsdale, Ariz., who officially won't
confirm that Alcor actually has possession of the baseball star's remains.
Hits on the foundation's website leaped from 5,000 to more than 600,000 a
day, he said.

Until the Williams story broke, ''We weren't showing up on anyone's radar
screens,'' Lemler said. ``I want to take this whole concept, and Alcor,
down Main Street U.S.A., and move it away from the computer geek, 148-IQ,
single hacker. They're not our future.''

That won't be easy. Skeptics consider Alcor's $120,000 price tag for
full-body preservation wasted money.

''They couldn't pay me to do it,'' said Donna J. Osterhout, an assistant
professor of neuroscience at the State University of New York Upstate
Medical Hospital in Syracuse. ``It's such folly at this point in time.
Knowing what we do about science at present and what we need to learn, it
won't work.''

It won't matter much to those now in cold storage if cryonic preservation
fails -- they'll still be dead. But some question whether promoting the
promise that a deceased loved one could live again is a cruel thing to do
to survivors.

''We already have a problem dealing with death,'' said Kenneth Goodman,
director of the University of Miami's Bioethics Program. ``My fear is that
it will increasingly prevent people from arriving at mature views about
death and dying.''

Lemler, a doctor of psychiatry, said cryonicists know the odds are against


''Strictly speaking, this is one grand experiment,'' he said. ``It's like
the lottery. The prize is fantastic. The odds are long. But you have to buy
a ticket to win.''

Cryonicists don't even consider their ''patients'' dead; They've only
completed their ``first life cycle.''

''We are not raising the dead here,'' Lemler said. ``We believe our
patients are alive. We are an extension of life-saving technology.''

The remains of the elder Hixon and 49 other people -- widely presumed to
include Williams -- repose inside eight cylindrical vessels called dewars,
in a garage-sized, white-brick room in a suburban Phoenix business park.

The dewars -- giant, insulated Thermos-type bottles filled with supercooled
liquid nitrogen -- preserve about a dozen full human bodies, three times as
many detached heads, and a small assortment of pets, at minus 320 degrees

Extreme cold normally destroys human tissue. Water -- which makes up 80
percent of the human body -- expands when it freezes, destroying cell
integrity just as water freezing in the cracks of a roadway can buckle the
pavement. Even cells that initially survive the freezing and thawing
process often die from a little-understood reaction called apoptosis --
essentially, cellular suicide triggered by stress.

Still, with careful control of the cooling process, cryobiologists have
succeeded in freezing and thawing cell clusters, embryos and tiny tissue
samples such as skin. Cryopreserving larger samples, such as organs, is
exponentially more problematic.

Undaunted, cryonicists freeze whole human bodies, optimistic that science
one day will bring them back to life. Lately, cryonicists have pinned their
hopes to advances in vitrification and nanotechnology.

Vitrification infuses tissue with a chemical that prevents water from
forming ice as it cools. Nanotechnology, the construction of molecular
''devices'' small enough to enter a cell and repair it, is still only a
theory, but the object of considerable research.

Alcor has vitrified its last seven clients -- though the process is still
considered toxic to cells. That, too, science one day will fix, cryonicists

''I personally feel that it is inevitable that we will perfect suspended
animation in 10 to 20 years,'' said Bill Faloon, a founder of Fort
Lauderdale-based Life Extension Foundation, an organization for people
interested in extending the human life span.

Not likely, say mainstream scientists.

''This doesn't pass the straight-face test,'' said UM's Goodman. ``There
just is no science there. The idea that some time in the future scientists
will be able to reconstitute people with the same memories and knowledge --
they're not just talking about violating the laws of nature. That's
optimism on steroids.''

Experts can't even say for certain what makes people who they are, Goodman
argues. Even if a cryopreserved human could be reanimated, would it still
be the person who was frozen?

''Think of a memory from childhood,'' Goodman said. ``Where'd that come
from? What combination of cells and electrical impulses was able to summon
that up? That's a scientific mystery.''

If cryonics ever does work, there would still be pressing ethical questions
to consider.

Who would perform the first reanimation experiments, and upon which
clients? Would people in the future even want us there? Would their notions
of ethics, morality and quality of life even permit reanimation?


''There is a supreme egotism in the idea of immortality,'' said John Baust,
director of the Institute of Biomedical Technology at the State University
of New York at Binghamton. ``The individual who freezes himself or herself
to come back in the future makes the assumption he will be a contributor to
that society and that they would want him.''

The roots of cryonics trace to The Prospect of Immortality, a 1964 book by
physicist Robert C.W. Ettinger. Ettinger, now in his 80s, is a director of
the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute, the only other U.S. cryonic
preservation operation.

Ettinger's book captured the imagination of futurists, survivalists,
science-fiction lovers and technology buffs. Even today, the typical
cryonics client is better educated, richer and geekier than the general

The first body to be frozen was that of psychology professor James Bedford
on Jan. 12, 1967. A couple of dozen followed.

But problems plagued the fledgling industry. Family members quickly tired
of the annual maintenance expense. Most early subjects ended up being
thawed, then buried or cremated.

In 1987, Alcor was rocked by allegations it had removed and frozen the head
of patient Dora Kent before she was legally declared dead. Then-chief
researcher Mike Darwin and five other Alcor members were arrested, and
authorities demanded Kent's head for an autopsy.

After years of legal battles, the case was dropped. Kent's head was never

Then in 1992, Darwin himself broke with Alcor and other cryonicists,
accusing them of slick marketing rather than scientific inquiry.

''I am becoming convinced that our . . . critics are quite right in
asserting that cryonics is not good science or even science at all,''
Darwin wrote in a farewell letter now posted on the Internet. ``At what
point do we look at ourselves and ask whether what we are doing is rational
or purely a religious exercise? At what point do we wake up and discover we
are a cult?''


Lemler, Alcor's president since February 2000, says those industry troubles
are over.

''Whatever we've been doing in the past 30 years hasn't been successful,''
he said. ''But we've raised the public's consciousness about cryonics''
since the Williams story broke.

Alcor has about 590 members who have contracted to be cryonically preserved
upon death. Many plan to use life-insurance policies to pay the $120,000
tab for full-body preservation, or $50,000 for head-only preservation.
(Those who choose this option expect future science will be able to build
new bodies from DNA, or download thoughts and memories to computers.) The
price covers preservation in perpetuity; more than half the money is kept
in a patient-care trust to pay for upkeep and eventual reanimation.

Alcor is a nonprofit organization that had $4.3 million in total assets on
Dec. 31, 2001. Expenses exceeded revenue by $175,000 in 2001, after running
$13,600 in the black the previous year.

Viewed one way, cryonic preservation is just another post-mortem
alternative to cremation or burial.

Still, doubters consider any money spent on the practice a wasted

''If you have enough money to turn yourself into a Ted-sicle, then you have
enough money to help somebody in need today,'' said Goodman, the UM

``I hate to say it, but sometimes the naysayers are right. Everything is
not possible. Reality is cruel that way.''

End of Article. Commentary by S. Harris in article to follow.

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