Cryonics guru Robert Ettinger dies, his life put on ice

By Theresa Mallinson 27 July 2011

The cadaver of Robert Ettinger is right now in the process of being cryogenically preserved. If he's brought back to life in the distant future, we won't be around to hear his “I told you so”, but the human colony on Mars may make contact with him. Although we reckon there's more chance of humans setting up New Manhattan on Mars than Ettinger being resurrected. By THERESA MALLINSON.

Robert Ettinger passed away at his home on Saturday afternoon. So the father of the cryonics movement has kicked the bucket, snuffed it, is as dead as a doornail. Or rather, as dead as a person who’s been cryogenically frozen and expects to be resurrected at some distant point in the future can be. Many people, myself included, would think this amounts to much the same thing, but not Ettinger. As he told the New Yorker last year: “Our patients are not truly dead in any fundamental sense.”

Now the 92-year-old Ettinger has become the 106th “patient” of the Cryonics Institute, which he founded back in 1976. Adherents of cryonics believe that future developments in medical technology will allow their frozen bodies to be brought back to life. So, when cryonicists die, their loved ones – without so much as a pause to shed a tear of grief – must speedily execute the emergency response to ensure the  recently departed’s best possible chances of future life. “Before proceeding any further: only if the person has already been pronounced dead, cool his or her head immediately. Place ice cubes, or crushed ice, or water ice, in a plastic bag, and completely cover the front, top, back and sides of the person’s head. Do NOT place ice on a member until there has been a legal pronouncement of death – attempt to obtain a pronouncement as soon as possible. Contact the Cryonics Institute immediately at: 1-866-ATT-CRYO…”

Once the Cryonics Institute has been contacted, the proceedings become a tad more technical. Writing for the New Yorker in 2010, Jill Lepore detailed what would happen to Ettinger when he died  “[T]he blood will be drained from his body, antifreeze will be pumped into his arteries, and holes will be drilled in his skull, after which he will be stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at -320degF [about -196degC].”

According to The Detroit News, the entire procedure will take about five days to complete. “[P]reparing Ettinger’s body involved packing it in ice, ‘profusing’ it with chemicals to limit freezer damage and slowly cooling it to the temperature of liquid nitrogen. It began within minutes of his death on Saturday afternoon, his son said, to assure the least amount of damage. He is expected to be submerged upside down in a tank, known as a cryostat, filled with liquid nitrogen by Thursday.”

Bodies are stored upside down so that in the worst-case scenario, if the cooling mechanism fails, the head will remain protected longest. Of course, when it comes to resurrection time, it’s a little more complex than simply awakening the preserved body (not that that’s simple – if it were, someone would’ve done it already). Not only will the scientists need to reanimate the body, but they’ll have to cure it of whatever disease or wound killed it, repair any damage prior to and during freezing, and somehow reverse the effects of ageing. Not much point being resurrected as a 92-year-old, is there?

Ettinger became interested in cryonics as a teenager, when he read the Neil Ronald Jones short story, “The Jameson Satellite”. In the story, the professor searches “for a means by which the body could be preserved perfectly forever”.  And, “Quite suddenly one day he had conceived the answer to the puzzling problem which obsessed his mind, leaving him awed with its wild, uncanny potentialities.

“He would have his body shot into space enclosed in a rocket to become a satellite of the earth as long as the earth continued to exist. He reasoned logically. Any material substance, whether of organic or inorganic origin, cast into the depths of space would exist indefinitely…. He would remain in perfect preservation, while on earth millions of generations of mankind would live and die, their bodies to moulder into the dust of the forgotten past… What a magnificent idea!”

While Ettinger reasoned logically that Jameson’s (or James’) idea was impossible, he came up with a magnificently illogical idea of his own. In 1962 he self-published his book “The Prospects of Immortality”, suggesting that if bodies were cryogenically frozen, they may be reanimated at a later date, when technology catches up with science fiction. After examining such practical and philosophical matters as “the effects of freezing and cooling”, “freezing and religion” and “the manners, modes and morals of tomorrow”, Ettinger concluded by writing: “Then, for the first time in the history of the world, it will be au revoir but not goodbye.”

Almost 50 years after Ettinger wrote those words, we’re not much closer to achieving immortality – should we even desire it. It’s revealing that on the Cryonics Institute’s FAQ site, one of the questions is: “Are there public statements by eminent scientists who recognise that cryonics has scientific merit?” Admittedly the answer references a “Scientists Open Letter on Cryonics”, which has 61 signatures, but a quick scan of the signees shows the majority are not qualified in neuroscience.

A heavy-handed disclaimer adds: “Note that cryonics is science-based, but cannot correctly be called current science. Cryonics is based on expectations of the repair capabilities of future science. Although the projection is less, possible human habitation of Mars is similarly a science-based concept based on projections of the capabilities of current science.” We won’t be around for Robert Ettinger to point and laugh at us if we’re wrong, but we’re pretty sure that human habitation on Mars has a better chance of happening before he is brought back to life again.

A loyal core of followers, including his son David, would beg to differ. “We’re obviously sad [about his death],” Ettinger junior was quoted in The Washington Post. But, “We were able to freeze him under optimum conditions, so he’s got another chance.” If there’s one thing that cryonics has achieved to date, it’s to offer a sense of hope to those left behind. Call it religion, with a sci-fi veneer. DM

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