There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Naked except for his glasses, Keith Lynch emerges from a camper inside a desolate compound in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., to get some air. In the starlight, an open bay door in the nearby windowless one-story industrial building beckons. Behind the door lies a mammoth underground cryogenic storage facility. The door guarding its frigid inhabitants has been left open inadvertently. Lynch walks through and is confronted by the twin 600-pound lids that seal the containers set into the concrete floor.
Oblivious to the fact that he is nakedhe sleeps that waythe wiry D.C. computer geek advances until his bare feet touch one of the cool steel lids. He ponders the ultimate fate of the 11 human cadavers suspended head-down in liquid nitrogen below his feet. The minus-321-degree coolant bubbles silently within the thick, vacuum-insulated chambers that keep those interned there in a state of permafrost.
Lynch stands toe to toe with his ideological compatriots for many minutes. The frozen bloodless ones are stowed upside down in case something goes terribly wrongif they begin to defrost prematurely, the relatively dispensable feet thaw first. Hours would have to pass before the thaw reached the head, when they would become common, room-temperature stiffs. For the moment, only the steel lid, resembling a manhole cover, separates Lynch from his future resting place. Feeling the slightest touch of envy, he turns and goes back to bed.
Last September, Lynch visited the nondescript 21st Century Medicine complex about 50 miles west of Los Angeles to train in cryogenic preservation. He was representing a small faction of Washingtonians who go the health freaks one better: They want to live forever. Members of the Life Extension Society (LES), a Maryland-based nonprofit incorporated in 1992, have decided that cryonics is their only possible ticket to a limitless future. To Lynch, cryonics is mostly about unfinished business.
“There just isn’t time for all the things I want to do,” Lynch says.
Revival from such a frosted state, or “reanimation,” as it’s called in cryospeak, is not now possible, and the future doesn’t look so hot, either. All the headlines about frozen embryos, cloning, and other procedures haven’t worn down a principal fact of life: It ends in death. Cryonics is a scientific long shot, and there isn’t exactly a wealth of federal funding for research in reanimating human popsicles. Although helpful breakthroughs in fields like organ transplantation have occurred, targeted research in this area has been left to a handful of privately financed, like-minded souls.
Lynch is a sci-fi head who developed faith in cryonics after reading about James H. Bedford, the 73-year-old California psychology professor who became the first cryonaut in 1967. Lynch was 9 years old at the time, so aging shouldn’t have been a big worry, but life extenders are an idiosyncratic bunch. Despite the naysayers and hecklers, LES’s dozen hard-core members keep the faith by keeping their options open.
“Cryonics is a lot like the beginning of anything: woefully inadequate,” Lynch says. “If you look at the fire engines of 200 years ago, they were almost pointlessalmost, but not quite.”
On a Sunday afternoon in April, a group of LES members pulls together a circle of chairs for its monthly board meeting in a warehouse one of the members owns off Rockville Pike in Bethesda. This particular meeting features more than idle chitchat about building a bridge to forever. In the center of the circle, Derek Weaver, the group’s R&D chief, is fast at work assembling a rectangular white box about 6 feet by 3 feet. Periodically, various members pop up and peer curiously over his shoulder to inspect the work. Half mad scientist, half grease monkey, Weaver toils with the plastic, metal, and wood parts for more than a half-hour, and then backs away to reveal the fruits of his labors. For the most part, it looks like an open-faced coffin with aluminum support bars on the sides. It’s not too mundane for the LESers to admire its craftsmanship, however.
“Looks comfy,” says LES president Margaret Jordan, an Alexandria-based aerospace consultant and the only woman in the society. The finished product will be a portable ice bath, or “PIB,” the first component of the cryonic stabilization kit the group is in the process of assembling. Lynch, clad in a green woolen hat, thick sweater, and turtleneck despite the warm room, observes that the box is too small for someone over six feet.
“We can bend their knees,” says Gregory M. Fahy, an internationally known cryobiologist now working on transplant research at the Naval Research Laboratory in Bethesda. Fahy is wearing a silver medical bracelet like the one many diabetics wear, only his version indicates that he has signed up for cryopreservation and lists an 800 number for information on how to preserve him in the event of an accident.
For a group of what many people would consider nutballs, the LES members are a fairly pragmatic bunch. Jordan leads the board members through a detailed list of unprocured supplies. To transport its occupants to a more permanently chilled future, the LES lifeboat still needs a water circulating pump (a “squid”), a heart-lung resuscitator (a “thumper”), oxygen tanks (complete with compressors, regulators, and hoses), a nylon body bag, 1-gallon Ziploc bags for ice, sutures, a thermometer, a mortician’s gurney, syringes, heparin, needles, crazy glue, disposable razors, a pH monitor, and sundry stabilizing chemicals and supplies. Like many obsessions, living forever requires dedication and lots of expensive gear.
The discussion of the PIB turns to acquiring a thermocouple to help monitor the donor’s ear temperature, which is a reliable gauge of the all-important brain temperature. Lynch says the device makes the cryopatient look as if he is listening to a Walkman. “Heavenly music, no doubt,” adds LES secretary Mark Mugler, a middle-aged Arlington resident.
An argument follows on how to ensure a ready supply of 500 pounds of iceeven at 3 a.m., if necessary. In the event that one of their members dies, they will all go tactical: “7-Eleven is probably the best place to get ice, day or night,” says Lynch. “We can all grab a bag on our way in,” Mugler agrees.
Lynch then raises the issue of how the PIB will be sterilized between emergency stabilization efforts. He seems confident that the rig will get plenty of use.
The portable ice coffin, the morbid talk, and Lynch’s pilgrimage to the Rancho Cucamonga repository are all part of a master plan to slow the deterioration of the Washington-area patrons before they are lowered into a tank of nitrogen in far-off facilities. Compared to their West Coast counterparts, LES members are at a severe disadvantage: Most of the cryopreservation lab facilities are based in Arizona and California. It seems that many people on the ever-expanding frontier think they are going to live forever, while most people in the East suspect they might die tomorrow. The anomalous Washington group doesn’t want to be shortchanged by this cultural divide: If members are not quickly cooled and transported to the repositories, suspension may be beside the point. Absent extraordinary measures, they will become more hamburger than human.
None of LES’s members has met an icy fate yet, but a handful have actually registered with various life-extension companies. Worldwide, the body count hovers at 70 for actual cryonic suspensions, but more than 600 others, including patrons from Canada, Europe, and Australia, have signed compacts with the six preservation companies now out there.
The Cadillacs of cryosuspensionsprovided by Alcor Life Extension Foundation Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz.go for about $125,000 for whole-body suspensions, while neurosuspensions, or freezing of the head only, run about $50,000 each. Mugler, for example, will only have his head preserved.
Even if you only set aside your head as a hedge against future technological advances, those are still pretty big numbers. Life insurance can provide the fare for a ticket to a limitless beyond, although paying the premiums still involves some sacrifice. “So, we go out to eat slightly less often, and my kids will go to a slightly less prestigious university. It’s the only hope,” says Mugler.
A no-frills suspension can be had for roughly $28,000 at the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Mich. The institute is headed by former community college teacher Robert C.W. Ettinger, who got the world thinking about cryonics in his influential 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality. Ettinger’s human cooler is where LES treasurer Joel Finkleman will take up residence once he dies. He’d like his mother, who is in bad health, to be cryopreserved as well, but he has yet to convince the 83-year-old to nod off into a liquid nitrogen freezer. “The rest of humanity can throw their relatives in the ground; I think it’s inhumane,” Finkleman says.
According to a Jan. 13 Wall Street Journal report, life extension firms have proved unprofitable thus far because few people are throwing their money or their bodies at the cause. The fact that the technology doesn’t yet exist to reanimate donors is apparently something of a deal-breaker. And the capability may never exist. “It may be that no one already frozen is revivable,” Jordan says. “But what’s the alternative?”
A tasteful little funeral, perhaps?
The first session of Lynch’s cryotransport course at the Rancho Cucamonga lab began at 10 a.m. sharp last Sept. 3. Lynch and 11 other students were decked out in scrubs, hair and shoe covers, gloves, and masks, ready to train under Mike Federowicz, the world’s foremost cryonics researcher and former Alcor president. In the tight little world of cryonics, he’s known simply as “Darwin.” The group’s main cryopatient on that day was a dog, which was placed in an old portable ice bath for added realism, instead of on an operating table.
Darwin is the team leader of the reputed top standby, stabilization, transport, and cool-down company, BioPreservation Inc., which is located in the 21st Century Medicine compound. The self-taught Darwin took the costumed group through a host of complex medical tasks, which included administering more than 20 different drugs and several surgical procedures. The main goal of the process is to purge the body of water, which expands on cooling and ruptures cells with sharp ice crystals.
The pre-freeze preparation seems daunting even for a team of the most highly skilled medical professionals. As soon after legal death as possible, Lynch says, the “donor” must be cooled externally and internally, circulation and respiration supported, and the blood treated with anti-coagulants. A tab of Maalox is administered to squelch stomach acids, and a special catheter is threaded into the heart. Stabilization is complete when the blood is replaced with an organ-preserving solution. Then the remains are treated with a protective compound, currently glycerol, cooled to minus 320 degrees and transferred to vacuum-insulated storage tanks.
During the class, the novices committed various medical sins, which resulted in the untimely death of the dog. Lynch was partly to blame for overdosing the dog, and a German doctor from Mannheim named Siegfried Stoll botched one of the surgical cut-downs. But in the end, a malfunctioning thumperheart machine to the cryogenically impaireddid the dog in. The daunting set of skills required for cryotechnicians makes the current LES members unlikely candidates, as no local doctors or morticians have signed on with the group so far. If somebody keels over, they’ll just have to make do.
None of them is expecting miracles anytime soon. For all the rigorous preparations, most of the members of LES pride themselves on a durable skepticism of their own core beliefs. In that sense, they are not true believers, just people who prefer to put their money where their imagination is.
Darwin himself is famous for espousing serious doubts about cryonics from time to time, but then again he has dedicated his life to the pursuit. The skepticism of leaders of the cryonics movement is part of what has earned them the trust of the typical rational-minded would-be frozen time traveler.
“The cryonics groups were very upfront about the fact that it’s been unsuccessful so far and that it’s very unlikely anybody would ever come back. That was attractive to me,” says Jordan. The 42-year-old was introduced to the persuasion more than a decade ago at a futurist party in California.
Cryonicists tend to deal with death as a nuts-and-bolts affair, an approach that makes many people squeamish. Jordan, in particular, finds the clinical approach appealing. “They realistically confront the fact that death is the eventual outcome,” she explains, whereas “most people can’t even talk about death. Most people have a hard enough time just making funeral plans.”
Cryonicists believe reanimation is possible because of emerging advances in three fields: neurobiology, cryobiology, and nanotechnology. According to literature from various web pages and promotional packetswhich LES members cite from memorycurrent brain-preservation techniques are good enough to preserve the integrity of the assorted brain structures. Ideally, cryobiologists would like to be able to turn brain cells to glass for storagethe process, known as vitrification, allows cooling without the formation of damaging ice crystals. Freezer burn may be no big deal when you’re dealing with a piece of chicken, but when it comes to delicate brain tissue, it’s another matter. Without such advances, Mugler says, “you’re going to come back as a 95-year-old bag of mush who’s been decimated by ice crystals.”
Once patients are frozen, however, they can stay that way for thousands of years without incurring additional injuryassuming, of course, that there will be someone there to mind the store. Given that business entities have a hard enough time living up to the terms of a one-year warranty on a weed whacker, eternity seems like a tall order. But then, cryonicists are obviously optimists by nature.
There is something chillingly attractive about the whole notion of popping out of the deep freeze and reanimating. In the recent movie The Fifth Element, the supreme being Leeloo regrew a body. Nanotechnologya strategy by which molecular robots and computers manipulate cells atom by atom, molecule by molecule to restore them to viabilityis another possibility.
Mugler, for one, is betting that cryobiologists will come up with less damaging preservatives for brain cells. Mugler, who’s in line for a neurosuspension, is also guessing that people won’t necessarily need more than a head to get around in the future. “It may be that a brain is enough,” he says.
So what kind of person would even want to live forever? The typical cryonicist is a single male of above average intelligence, according to cryolore. A perfectionist by nature, he is usually an atheist or without religious conviction. He has strong ties to the science and engineering communities, and political views that are commonly libertarian. He claims to love life and want more of it.
Lynch fits the profile to a T. His personal web page lists science fiction, liberty, programming, science, math, space colonization, nanotechnology, ham radio, and Ayn Rand’s objectivism as interests.
“I don’t believe in flying saucers, psychic powers, or faster-than-light travel,” Lynch says, establishing his credentials as a skeptic. He’s against big government, destroying information, drunk or careless motorists, psychiatry, and, ironically, hates being cold. (Lynch says he has an unusual metabolism that makes him cold all the time.)
He does most of his traveling in cyberspace. Going online, in fact, is his default behavior: It’s what he does when he’s not doing something else. At age 39, he has been on the net for 20 years. “I used to go around telling people how great it was; nobody paid any attention. Maybe the same thing will happen with cryonics,” he says.
He wants to stick around to “see how everything comes out,” much like Benjamin Franklin, who once said he’d like to be preserved in a cask of Madeira with a few friends, so he could see how his beloved republic evolved over the centuries. “And yes, I want to live longer,” Lynch says. “I want to do more things, read more books, read more news groups on the web.”
Cryonicists have no qualms about being perceived as selfish. Most LES members admit they are a group interested in perpetuating little more than their own individual lives. “Personally, I’m just in it for me,” says Mugler, an atheist and a libertarian who works as a policy analyst for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mugler says he harbors “no illusions about the value of my head to posterity.”
As a woman, Jordan makes a less likely item in the array of frozen specimens, though she likes motorcycling and rocketing as well as her aerospace work. Fewer than 20 percent of cryonicists are female. “I’d like to see that trend reversed,” says Jordan, who along with her husband, Duncan Forbes, is in the process of signing up with one of the cryocompanies. Eventually, she hopes her 5-year-old son, Malcolm, will join up, too. They are holding out for a family rate. “I want to see the people I love continue,” she says.
Only about 1 percent of people with a strong interest in cryonics ever actually sign up for the treatment. And for whatever reason, some 5 percent of registered cryonicists are never frozen. The infamous Harvard University psychologist Timothy Leary signed up with two cryocompanies and wore a cryobracelet on each hand: one to have his head preserved, the other instructing the full-body plan. In the end, Leary was cremated and participated in the world’s first extraterrestrial funeral. Along with 23 others, his ashes were hurled into outer space aboard an American rocket called Pegasus. He probably has just as good a chance at immortality as if he had decided to pickle his LSD-soaked brain.
In the unlikely event that technology catches up with imagination, the frozen travelers will be waking to an uncertain future. The arrival is likely to be as abrupt as birth, but more shocking. Besides arriving naked and completely vulnerable, the cryonaut would most likely also arrive alone, without family, friends, or social contactsa biological pariah, like Frankenstein’s monster.
There is no guarantee that even if the cryonauts wake up on the other side, they will remember anything of their past lives. In case of death-induced amnesia, candidates are suspended with highly detailed information, including videotapes, family photographs, medical records, and diaries. Lynch wants to have his extensive archives frozen along with him. (He claims to have the most comprehensive archives on the evolution of the Internet and some news groups, including the “Cryonet” mailing list.)
“I don’t think I’ll wake up in some utopia,” Lynch says. “A lot will be very different; a lot will be very much the same.”
Cryonauts, for the most part, are betting on the benevolence of evolution. “Sometimes I feel I was born a couple of hundred years too early, like I’m just waiting for the world to catch up,” Jordan says. “I remain shocked at the existence of racism and sexism. All those things seem unnatural to me.” Jordan will be one of the few cryonicists fortunate enough to have other family members frozen along with her and is sure to be planning a warm family reunion if science brings them back. Still others hope to arrive with their pets. For example, Darwin has his childhood dog chilling within BioPreservation Inc.’s frosty chambers. If and when Darwin awakes, his dog will hopefully be sitting there wagging its tail.
If cryonicists’ designs on the future come true, the long wait may be quite lucrative. If a donor invests $10,000 at the time of legal death and is revived 100 years later, he will find about $8.7 million in 21st century dollars waiting for him. To get around sticky laws and tax obligations, the Reanimation Foundation in Liechtenstein has been created for investments of this nature.
Still, many cryonicists fret that future societies won’t want to revive any frozen pods after the novelty wears off. Vivid memories of the Chatsworth Scandal, a gruesome tale in which several dozen donors thawed out, still haunt some cryonicists. Most of the first cryopatients, who were stowed by the California Cryonics Society in the late ’60s and early ’70s, thawed out because relatives defaulted on the maintenance payments, which cover the critical liquid nitrogen infusions. The society, which ran the Chatsworth cemetery crypt that housed the freezers, secretly buried the thawed bodies in a nearby cemetery.
To allay lingering fears, many cryonicists have formed a reanimation society. Society members sign a pact “to do what it takes to get the others revived,” Lynch explains. Conventional cryonics wisdom holds that the last in will be the first out, as presumably the later a cryonaut is frozen, the less damage has been done to his cells and the easier it will be to revive him. “And so on and so forth back to Bedford, who presumably would be the last revived,” he says, noting, “he’s pretty much a straight freeze case.”
Most cryonicists, however, place stock in the notion that humankind is evolving ethically and morally over time. “Each life is valuable. If they can bring you back, you won’t be worthless to society,” Mugler says.
“If nothing else works, maybe it would
be a project for a high-school science class,”
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.