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Cryonics (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Ted Williams, the baseball great, has been making headlines in the last year. Or, more exactly, his body has made news.

His head is stored in a steel can filled with liquid nitrogen, and his body stands upright in a 9-foot tall cylindrical steel tank, also filled with liquid nitrogen. Ted Williams has been frozen, with the hope that at some point in the future he can be revived. What has happened to Williams is called "cryonics", in technical terms postmortem freezing.

If you've been frozen after death, can they bring you back? The key is what happens to your cells. The cell is surrounded by a membrane that keeps it intact. As the cell cools the fats inside it solidify, breaking down the cell wall, allowing water to leak out. The water then turns into ice crystals with sharp edges that stab the cell wall. In other words, ice turns into the cellular equivalent of ground glass. As the temperature is lowered to about minus 95 degrees the major organs in the body begin to crack. As one scientist put it "Everything is crushed ... complete pulverization and destruction. There is not a single salvageable piece of anything ... inside those cells."

You would think that this would put most people off from having themselves frozen, but those interested in it argue that while the probability of being resurrected is small because of this cellular damage, it is much, much greater than the probability of being brought back to life after being buried.

Those who want to be frozen can join a group like Alcor, which calls itself a "Life Extension Foundation." For the princely sum of $120,000 the Alcor Foundation will freeze you when you die. As an Alcor client you get a bracelet with instructions for the event of your death, warning that "no autopsy or embalming" is allowed. The moment you die they give you a large dose of heparin, which prevent your blood from clotting, and a mechanical thumper beats on your chest to keep the blood circulating. On arrival at the Alcor headquarters in Arizona, your blood is replaced with anti-freeze, and you're stored in a large stainless steel container called a dewar. It's kind of a body-sized thermos bottle.

Of course, if you're revived you'll need money. So, Alcor takes part of the $120,000 fee and invests it in a trust fund for when you return to this world. This can be very lucrative: If you invested a dollar today, it would likely be worth about 77 billion trillion trillion trillion a millennium from now.

If you have a cash flow problem today and can't afford the $120,000 price tag, you might consider what you get for $50,000 - for that amount Alcor will freeze just you head. I'm sure you could buy a body with part of the billion trillion trillion trillion dollars you'll have.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises