Calculus has Isaac Newton, physics has Albert Einstein, and personal technology has Steve Jobs.
And cryonics has Robert Ettinger.
Cryonics—that is, the deep chilling of corpses with the hope that at some point in the future, they can be resurrected—is the focus of my story in VICE's Future of Technology issue. All told, an estimated 300 or more people are cryogenically frozen in the US today, including Ettinger, the movement's unlikely father, who died in 2011 and is cryopreserved at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan.
Like the concepts he espoused, Ettinger remains controversial. While some revere Ettinger as an optimistic pioneer ahead of his time, others have lambasted him and his views as the stuff of snake oil, noting he sought to gather funds from unsuspecting individuals with a false promise of a second life. (Representatives with the Cryonics Institute did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Yet Ettinger's influence remains profound to some of his followers today. He's often quoted in cryonics message boards and publications, and before his death made the media rounds, including TV appearances with David Frost and Johnny Carson. Linda Chamberlain, co-founder of Scottsdale, Ariz.,-based cryonics nonprofit Alcor, said that she first heard about his teachings as a "starry-eyed college kid" in California in the late 1960s.
"I had pretty much accepted the fact that when you die, you just turn to dust and that's the end. When I read Bob Ettinger's book, I said, 'Holy Tamales! Maybe not!'"
"I was an atheist," Chamberlain said. Then, she said she came across Ettinger's 1964 book, The Prospect of Immortality. "So I had pretty much accepted the fact that when you die, you just turn to dust and that's the end. When I read Bob Ettinger's book, I said, 'Holy Tamales! Maybe not!' It intrigued me as a possible answer to death when I found no other answer to that for myself. It was a very positive, life-affirming, happy idea when I read about it."
The nonfiction plot of Ettinger's life intersected with science fiction early on. He was born in December 4, 1918 in Atlantic City, NJ, according to according to Cryonics.org. At the age of 12, he began reading science fiction, creating the foundation for his thinking about the physical limitations of the human body. He received masters degrees in both mathematics and physics from Wayne State University in Michigan.
Legend has it that after his legs were wounded in battle in Germany during World War II, Ettinger began to read the work of a French biologist Jean Rostand who was concerned with life, death, and low temperatures. The graft surgery Ettinger received on his legs also inspired his interest in life restoration.
After the war, Ettinger returned home to write. In 1948, he published a short story called "The Penultimate Trump," a science fiction tome that laid out some of his ideas' potential (it does not reference the 45th President of the United States). Ettinger made contact with people on the "Who's Who in America" list with his pitch for freezing. Responses were lackluster.
But instead of retreating, Ettinger went bigger. That's when he published his cryonics magnum opus, The Prospect of Immortality.
The book is a strange paleo-future, unscientific pitch that at times bears more resemblance to an even more offbeat take on Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory than a medical journal. Ettinger wrote that freezing would unhatch a world of unbridled positivity. With fetuses incubated, childbirth would become moot and through a eugenics-like lens, Ettinger proposed that those born with cerebral palsy could simply remain frozen.
"If civilization endures, if the Golden Age materializes," Ettinger wrote:
"The future will reveal a wonderful world indeed, a vista to excite the mind and thrill the heart. It will be bigger and better than the present—but not only that. It will not be just the present, king-sized and chocolate-covered; it will be different. The key difference will be in people; we will remold, nearer to the heart's desire not just the world, but ourselves as well. And 'ourselves' refers to people, not just posterity. You and I, the frozen, the resucitees, will be not merely revived and cured, but enlarged and improved, made fit to work, play, and perhaps fight, on a grand scale and in a grand style. Specific reasons for such expectations will be presented."
The more romantic elements of Ettinger's pitch for a better second life could help improve one's attitude during the first one. "We need assurance that we can be revived," he said, "And not only that; if we die we want to be made well; if we die broken, we want to be made whole; and if we die old, we want to be made young."
At least one of Ettinger's predictions seemed true. Although the first Industrial Revolution, he said, involved human and animal muscles being replaced by machines, the second Industrial Revolution, he said, "now barely beginning, rests on the replacement of human brains by machines. The computers already have remarkable problem-solving capacities, and it appears to be only a matter of time until they can 'really think.'"
"The computers already have remarkable problem-solving capacities, and it appears to be only a matter of time until they can 'really think.'"
Ettinger also concerned himself with some of the more abstract implications of freezing, and proposed that, Atomic Age anxiety aside, freezing could herald a "golden age" of morality and ethics. If people are going to stick around for longer, the consequences of being unkind could, as well.
"Our actions will be strongly influenced by the realization that not only ourselves, but the other fellow also, will be around a long time," he said. "The people we meet in business life and in casual encounters of every kind can no longer be counted upon to fade away and disappear; instead, our paths may cross repeatedly in a long future dimply seen. All business becomes 'repeat' business; there are no more one-shots."
He argued that the "failure to freeze" could even be a crime, and pondered whether frozen cadavers had the right to vote. He asked if the words "till death do us part" in wedding vows would continue to suffice for cryonic couples and considered, in dated terms, the possibility that a man could awaken "still old," he wrote, "but before long we will gambole with the spring lambs--not to mention the young chicks, our wives."
Practicing what he preached, Ettinger's body is preserved, along with his mother's and his first and second wife, and he may have to live out some of the very ethical concerns he spent his first life debating. Chamberlain pointed out that if Ettinger and his two wives are thawed simultaneously, by definition, his first wife would not know of the second wife. It could very well be cryonics first-ever love triangle.
"We'll have to see how that works out," Chamberlain said.
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