Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Unfrozen Cave Men

A chilly August wind is blowing right here in suburban Detroit, sending shivers through the dearly departed encased in liquid nitrogen at the Cryonics Institute. The institute has been here since 1976, but apparently Michigan authorities had no idea there were actual frozen bodies in there until the Ted Williams saga wound its way to the "wacky news of the week" TV segments and news pages.

"I don't know that we realized there was one in Michigan until then," Archie Millben, enforcement director for the state's Bureau of Commercial Services, told the Detroit Free Press. "Then as a procedure for the public, we started looking into this."

But had Michigan's sleuths only looked, say, on the Internet and numerous newsgroups, they would have seen that the Cryonics Institute has not exactly been hiding out. They've been advertising what they've been doing for a long time. In fact, I can trace some of my interest in nanotechnology to discovery of this institute near my hometown.

So, anyway, heads will probably not roll, but the state has ordered the institute not to freeze any more heads or bodies until they figure out how to regulate it. Is it a cemetery? A mortuary? The state can't seem to classify it.

The Cryonics Institute was founded by Robert Ettinger, whose book, "Prospects of Immortality" (written perhaps not coincidentally in the year of my birth, 1965), inspired hundreds of people to sign up for the ice treatment here or at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in California. For $50,000 a head or $120,000 if you want the whole body preserved, they'll freeze you and then just keep you that way -- despite wars, famines, plagues or power outages -- until a cure is found for whatever killed you.

Then, they'll wake you up, grow you a new body or whatever else you want, and you're off to enjoy Futurama. What will make this happen is, yes, nanotechnology. Brains, bodies, birthmarks, anything will be reconstructed one particle at a time (only without the horrible tumors or wounds that killed them in the first place).

No, these are not Raelians. Some legitimate nanoscientists are involved in this dream, as Mark Frauenfelder reported in Small Times last December. Ralph Merkle and Robert Freitas are two of the respected scientists who are helping to bring cryonics out of the fringe.

Our generation will never know if they were crazy, or geniuses, but maybe our great-great grandkids will laugh at us for having laughed at them ... and a few hundred thawed-out eccentrics will be revered as pioneers. That is, if they can keep the air conditioners running at the Cryonics Institute.


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