The Weird Science of Cheating Death
By Claire Reilly / cnet.com
Linda Chamberlain works just down the hallway from her husband. She walks past him every day. Occasionally she'll stop by to check in on him and say hello.
The only problem is, Fred Chamberlain has been dead for eight years. Shortly after he was pronounced legally dead from prostate cancer, Fred was cryopreserved -- his body was filled with a medical-grade antifreeze, cooled to minus 196 degrees Celsius and carefully lowered into a giant vat of liquid nitrogen.
So when Linda visits Fred, she talks to him through the insulated, stainless-steel wall of a 10-foot-tall preservation chamber. And he's not alone in there. Eight people reside in that massive cylinder along with him, and more than 170 are preserved in similar chambers in the same room. All of them elected to have their bodies stored in subzero temperatures, to await a future when they could be brought back to life. Cryonically preserved in the middle of the Arizona desert.
"It makes me feel happy," she says. "Because I know that they have the potential to be restored to life and health. And I have the potential of being with them again."
Alcor proclaims itself a world leader in cryonics, offering customers the chance to preserve their bodies indefinitely, until they can be restored to full health and function through medical discoveries that have yet to be made. For the low price of $220,000, Alcor is selling the chance to live a second life.
It's a slim chance.
Critics say cryonics is a pipe dream, no different from age-old chimeras like the fountain of youth. Scientists say there's no way to adequately preserve a human body or brain, and that the promise of bringing a dead brain back to life is thousands of years away.
But Alcor is still selling that chance. And ever since Linda and Fred Chamberlain founded the Alcor Life Extension Foundation back in 1972, Linda has watched Alcor's membership swell with more people wanting to take that chance. More than 1,300 people have now signed up to have their bodies sent to Alcor instead of the graveyard.
And when her time is up, Linda Chamberlain plans to join them.
The dead end
When I arrived at the company's headquarters, a nondescript office block in Scottsdale, Arizona, a short drive out of Phoenix, I expected something grander. After all, this is a place that's attempting to answer the question at the heart of human existence: Can we cheat death?
I've come here to find out why someone would choose cryonics. What drives someone to reject the natural order of life and death, and embrace an end that's seen by many, scientists and lay people alike, as the stuff of science fiction?
But after a short time at Alcor, I realize the true believers here don't see cryonics as a way to cheat death. They don't even see death as the end.
"Legal death only really means that your heart and your lungs have stopped functioning without intervention," Linda Chamberlain tells me. "It doesn't mean your cells are dead, it doesn't mean even your organs are dead."
Alcor refers to the people preserved in its facilities as "patients" for that very reason -- it doesn't consider them to be dead.
In Chamberlain's view, the idea of death as an "on-off switch" is outdated. People that died 100 years ago could well have been saved by modern medical interventions that we take for granted in the 21st century. So what about 100 years from now? Alcor hopes that by pressing pause on life, its patients might be revived when medical technology has improved.
"Our best estimates are that within 50 to 100 years, we will have the medical technologies needed to restore our patients to health and function," says Chamberlain.
We're killing people who could potentially be preserved. We're just throwing them in the ground so they can be eaten by worms and bacteria.
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