A Brain Is A Terrible Thing To Waste

Mensans, Cryonics, and The Fight To Extend Human Life

By David Pascal

Published in the November/December 2005 issue of Mensa Bulletin

Robert EttingerEveryone’s heard about cryonics – the practice of cooling people who have died to ultra-low temperatures, in hopes that advancing medical science can restore them again to life in the future.

But not everyone knows how close that goal is to being a reality. Or that companies exist now which make it a real and affordable option. And very few people are aware of how important members of Mensa have been to cryonics.

Mensans And Cryonics

A Mensan named Robert Chester Wilson Ettinger made the most important single contribution to cryonics: he came up with the idea. Individuals as far back as the Roman poet Ovid observed that certain species seemed to freeze during winter yet come back to life. But it was mathematics and physics professor Robert Ettinger who first argued that the progressive historical growth of scientific knowledge and technology made it reasonable to believe that cooling damage to human tissues could be repaired.

Persons cooled quickly enough and kept at low enough temperatures could be restored to life, said Ettinger in his 1964 Book-Of-The-Month Club bestseller, The Prospect Of Immortality. And he argued that they should be, since life is preferable to death.

Ettinger arrived at his unique pro-life position as a second lieutenant infantryman in the US Army in World War Two. Severely wounded in battle in Germany , he received the Purple Heart and spent several years after the war recovering in an Army hospital in Battle Creek , Michigan .

There, he read about the work of French biologist Dr. Jean Rostand. Rostand had frozen frog sperm to the point where all biological activity and decay had ceased -- and successfully revived it several days later. Rostand speculated that perhaps someday the aged and infirm might be similarly treated and revived.

Ettinger's reflections on the work of Rostand and other scientists led him to collect his ideas on cryonics into a book. Doubleday, the publishers, sent a review copy to Mensan Isaac Asimov, who gave it a clean scientific bill of health. The book appeared in nine languages, four editions, and became the bible of the cryonics movement. Ettinger found himself appearing on Time and Newsweek and nationwide TV.

But Ettinger's book lacked one critical element. It didn't explain how to go from theory to practice - how to set up an organization to make cryonics available to people here and now.

That was the second great contribution to the cryonics movement. Again, it came from Mensans: Fred Chamberlain and Linda Chamberlain.

Inspired by Ettinger's writings, the Chamberlains decided in 1972 to form a legal nonprofit organization that would cool people to liquid nitrogen temperatures and guard and maintain them until such time as restoration became possible. They incorporated in California as the Alcor Society for Solid State Hypothermia, later the Alcor Life Extension Foundation (www.alcor.org). Under their leadership, Alcor soon became the largest cryonics organization in existence.

The Chamberlains realized that effective cryonics meant more than just hoping future technology could restore any possible freezing damage. They wanted to reduce damage immediately. So Alcor took the lead in developing medically valid methods to minimize damage from cooling procedures.

Alcor and its people were eventually instrumental in producing current breakthroughs in 'vitrification' - a cryobiological technique that replaces body fluid with a substance which becomes 'glassy' at ultra-low temperatures. But which doesn't freeze, and which therefore causes no freezing damage.

Alcor also led the way to greater respectability for cryonics among the intellectual and scientific and medical communities.

Eric Drexler, scientist and father of nanotechnology, is an active Alcor member and cryonics supporter. MIT's Marvin Minsky, scientist and father of artificial intelligence research in the United States , is an active member and supporter. Dr. Ralph Merkle of Xerox PARC, Dr. Aubrey de Grey of the University of Cambridge, Harvard-educated Dr. James Lewis, are among Alcor's scientific advisors. Alcor Director - and Mensa member -- Dr. Michael Perry may have written the most thoughtful work on cryonics available with Forever For All.

Cryonics Institute StaffRobert Ettinger went on to found the second-largest and fasting-growing cryonics services provider, the Cryonics Institute (www.cryonics.org). It may be the only cryonics organization headed throughout its history by Mensans alone, since Ettinger was succeeded by Ben Best, one of the most active Mensans in cryonics. Ben served as Treasurer of Toronto Mensa for several years, receiving a certificate of appreciation by Mensa Canada for his efforts. A frequent visitor to Regional Gatherings and Annual Gatherings in Canada and the US , Ben gave a cryonics presentation to the 2003 joint Canadian/American AG.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come?

The progress Ettinger anticipated continues. Vitrification is solving the problem of freezing damage. Nanotechnology founder Eric Drexler has stated flatly that nanotechnology should be able to restore individuals suspended today. Scientific American's June 2005 cover proclaimed, "Suspended Animation -- The Preservation Of Life Is No Longer A Fantasy". The science of cryonics is fast becoming fact.

But public acceptance is far away as ever. Media sensationalism has made an emerging science a public spectacle.

The newest arrival in the world of cryonics -- The Cryonics Society ( www.CryonicsSociety.org) - may be changing that. With a leadership that is one-third Mensan, the membership-based Society is certainly continuing the tradition of Mensa participation. But its goal is neither suspending nor maintaining patients. Its goal is public education.

"We're like the American Cancer Society," says founder Nick Pavlica . "The subject may not be popular. But everyone supports scientific research for a cure. Not everyone may want to be personally suspended. But developing cryonics could give medical science new ways to save millions of lives. It could preserve entire endangered species. It could enable interstellar exploration. When people understand that their support could improve everyone's lives, not just save their own, support will come. That's the choice we want people to make. The choice for life."

The possibility of life - or the certainty of death?

If the history of cryonics is any indication, people with IQ's in the top 2% have been making the intelligent choice all along.

Copyright 2005 Mensa Bulletin

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