The cryonics game

Want to live for ever? Got a hundred thousand dollars to spare? Ann Treneman checks out the Arizona Cryonics Festival

Ann Treneman
Friday 07 February 1997 01:02

As party invitations go, this one takes some beating: "Don't miss this exciting opportunity to meet with cryonics experts and activists in a stimulating environment!" urged the card for last weekend's Alcor Cryonics Technology Festival in Arizona. On offer was a special deal on suites at the Thunderbird Best Western motel, a raffle, a banquet and a tour of Alcor's rosy-beige and mauve building in Scottsdale that houses the frozen brains and bodies of 33 people and 11 of their pets.

Not that this was the highlight of the festival. That was to be a demonstration in which a rat's heart was to be frozen in liquid nitrogen to -196C, thawed out and brought back to life (or what passes for it when all you do is beat). The experiment was first reported to have been carried out last September in South Africa and it has been hailed as a breakthrough by the type of people destined for Scottsdale.

It is the kind of party trick that makes life easier for Garret Smyth of London who is a founding member of Alcor UK. "When I signed up to be frozen it was 1986 and everyone thought we were completely bonkers," says the neurobiology graduate and wannabe stand-up comic. "Now there are experiments with organs like this, and they have also done things like affect the lifespan of a fruit fly, It isn't so hard to explain now. People ask me why I want to live for ever but it is just that I don't want to be dead and there is no in-between except, of course, possibly daytime television."

Scientists tsk-tsk about the rat's heart experiment but Mr Smyth is right when he says that the world is getting closer to his point of view. The idea of life extension used to be the stuff of science fiction but now we're all watching The X-Files and there is a serious debate going on over whether ageing itself might be reversible. There is much talk about gene-mapping and nanotechnology and cell lifespans. More of us are living longer than ever before in the West and we want to believe - and many are already putting their money where their collagen-enhanced mouths are - that a cream can be invented to smooth away our wrinkles and our woes as well.

Cryonics is going through one of its "media darling" phases, sparked by the rat's heart experiment and fed by pre-millennium tension. The subject even made it to The Simpsons recently and no Radio 4 programme seems complete without a guest who plans to spend a significant portion of time with his veins full of anti-freeze and his body or brain suspended in a vacuum flask. There are only about 800 people in the world who have made "the ultimate in pre-arrangements" so far but more are destined to follow. Cryonicists say it is just a matter of time.

"I tell you when it will be popular - when they freeze a monkey in liquid nitrogen and then revive it. Then it will be very popular," says Paul Michaels. It is already very popular with the Michaels family of Leighton Buzzard. Paul, his wife Maureen and their son Alex are all signed up to be frozen in time at the Cryonics Institute in Detroit.

Mr Michaels does not want to live for ever, mind you, just 10,000 years. "I can't come to terms with the idea of living for ever. That's why I've picked a period of 10,000 years. I can visualise that if I were young- looking, fit and healthy and I could do things. I could leave the planet and explore parts of the solar system, perhaps go to another part of the galaxy and see what it's like. I'd love that."

In the meantime, he remains earthbound and selling vitamins - a business he got into because of his interest in life extension. He believes there have been breakthroughs in the 1990s already and quotes a scientist who says that soon "there will be 80-year-olds with skin like babies". His real goal, he confides, is not to be frozen at all. His real goal is simply never to stop living.

I ask the obvious question. "Yes I do consider myself perfectly normal though I do have a rather peculiar sense of humour. I worry about whether foot fetishists will ever come out of the closet and why kamikaze pilots wear crash helmets," he says, pausing for weak smiles. "Other than that I like Italian food, red wine, playing squash, foreign holidays, good company, witty people, nice cars and being warm in the winter. I like all the things that everybody else likes."

Everybody else also likes to cheat the clock. Cryonics can be seen as being at the end of a continuum that also contains plastic surgery and body sculpting. Somewhere over the past few years we have stopped even pretending that we are glad to be grey and that we love our wrinkles. We are fascinated by people who refuse to act their age. Novelist Marianne Wiggins became much quoted for her story of passionate sex at 50 - "my lover is my best playmate in the world" - and there have been just as many comments about Clair Chrysler who, at 55, has been chosen to be the body double for Jamie Lee Curtis. Ms Chrysler has the body of a woman "half her age". The bad news is that to keep it she has a personal trainer, runs half-marathons and does a two-hour step class every day.

Such fanaticism makes Paul Michaels' attempts to live longer look positively normal. "I drink in moderation - that's the name of the pub at the end of my road - and I don't smoke," he says. "I'm a vegetarian and I don't eat fish either, though that may be a mistake. I exercise moderately and play the most appalling squash you've ever seen."

Mr Michaels is 50 and one of the baby-boom generation that has dominated our society for at least three decades. Their motto used to be "I wanna die before I get old" but now they have decided that they just do not want to act (or look) old before they die. To be 50 these days is to prepare for a new phase, seek a new career, take a college degree. The idea of retirement is passe. No longer is it good enough to enjoy a comfortable Third Age. Dr Daphne Glick of the National Council of Women of Great Britain believes that in addition to young, middle-aged and old there is now a "fourth age": "It is a no-age, between 60 and 75 when you really get up and do the things you hadn't time to do before."

And there is also a "no-age look" that is starting to become accepted. Paul Michaels thinks he might want a little eye-lift soon and here too he is in tune with the times.

Sixty-five thousand people had cosmetic surgery in Britain in 1995. The trend is now so accepted in the States that there are toll-free numbers (as in 1-800-5NO-MAKE-UP) to call for quick advice. "It's the ordinary person now," says plastic surgeon and author Dai Davies of Charing Cross Hospital in London. "We are all under pressure to conform to what the advertising people would tell us is normal."

Psychologist Mike Money is head of the Centre for Health Studies at Liverpool John Moores University. "We are becoming as a culture very reluctant to confront the fact that the human life cycle entails change. The one thing you can bet money on, like Heraclitus said 2,400 years ago, 'panta rhei' - everything changes. It is a fact of life that your hair will turn white and you will develop wrinkles and sag in places you didn't used to sag."

Don't tell Clair Chrysler or the rest of us jogging, stepping and skipping our way to new vigour. Dr Money says there are three approaches to getting old: we can hate it, deny it (and try to reverse it) or enjoy it. "There is a Zen exercise where you stand naked in front of a mirror every morning for five minutes, contort yourself into ridiculous positions and laugh at yourself. I think that is very healthy." Most would think it just very terrifying.

You could not find a more average-looking place than the Cryonics Institute - a squat building on an industrial estate on the southeast edge of Detroit - and Sally Bazan is a perfect match in her flowered skirt and slipper shoes.

The atmosphere is positively homely, with family photographs of members on the walls. Nineteen people are stored here in four homemade and oddly shaped tanks - one looks like a rocket, another a giant picnic hamper. Each must be topped up with liquid nitrogen at varying times. Ms Bazan points to one: "The founder of the institute is Robert Ettinger and in there are his mother and first wife." Did they like each other? "I think so, so far, everything has been very calm in there," she says.

Ms Bazan is a funeral director but now mostly works at the institute. The Cryonics Institute does only whole-body suspension for a minimum of $28,000. Alcor is much more expensive: $120,000 for a whole body and $50,000 for a brain.

The institute is the ultimate in DIY: it makes its own containers, fills them and maintains them. Here life, death and immortality do not seem such a big deal. "A couple of our members are terminally ill and have petitioned the courts to let them be suspended before their clinical death," says Ms Bazan. "So even though the body is diseased they would have a better chance in the future before any further damage is done."

Such a scenario could keep Moral Maze types talking for hours but to Ms Bazan it is all part of the "natural progression". She believes that people who want to be frozen and then reanimated have a certain kind of personality. "They are real excited about the future. They are having a real good time now and they want to continue it as healthy, active members of society. It is a personality type.

Ms Bazan has not signed up. "I'm not convinced I want to come back. I'm not that personality type." I had already suspected this because the interview had been joke-free.

Not so with Mr Smyth: "People always ask me to tell them a joke and so I do. What do you call two Spanish firemen? Hose A and Hose B."

Not so with Mr Michaels. "I've got to leave you with this," he said at the door. "Why do cannibals not eat clowns? Don't know? Because they taste funny!"

Will they still be telling their jokes in the year 3997?

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