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The Man Who Fights Death

Bob Ettinger deanimated over the weekend, at the ripe old age of 92.

by
Rand Simberg

Bio

July 28, 2011 - 12:00 am
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Conventional obituaries will say that he died, of heart and respiratory failure, but he doesn’t believe so, nor do many of his friends and admirers.

His body won’t be buried or burned, as most people in his non-metabolizing state are, because those methods of interment would result in a state that even he and they would have recognized as death. Instead, as his bodily functions progressively failed, with a tub of chilled water at bedside, he was declared legally dead so that he could have himself chilled down, his fluids replaced with an anti-freeze solution, ultimately to liquid nitrogen temperatures, to continue a quest on which he had spent most of his life to date: to live indefinitely long.

He is not the first to be so preserved, though he is one of only a few hundred in history. But he is the man who made knowledge of the notion widespread to the point that there is a popular mythology of it (no, Walt Disney was not frozen), and it has become a staple of science fiction and even comedy, such as Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Matt Groening’s The Simpsons and Futurama, the latter in which it is key to the very premise of the show. In fact, the producer of both of those shows had a lot of fun with the idea earlier, when he was a still cartoonist.

He is a man far ahead of his time. As cryonics pioneer Mike Darwin noted in his “obituary” for Ettinger Sunday:

Cryonics depends upon a number of paradigm-changing observations: Death is a gradual process rooted in progressive loss of biological structure (information) and is not a binary condition in most cases. Life does not depend upon continuous function or metabolism; widespread cryopreservation of human embryos was required to bring this idea into the public consciousness. Cryopreservation is possible for a wide range of cells and tissues, and even when uncontrolled freezing occurs, vast amounts of cell and tissue structure remain either intact or inferable (i.e., theoretically possible to reconstruct and restore to health and life from their damaged state). Advances in biology and medicine offer the prospect of growing new organs and regenerating or replacing damaged tissues; this is no longer considered wild speculation, but rather, is today progress expected by the public as a result of the logical progression of biomedicine. Finally, the ideas of nanoscale engineering and computation and their implications for cell and tissue repair (nanomedicine) are still not fully appreciated by the public, although understanding and acceptance of these ideas is growing.

Part of the problem, of course, is that the idea defies “common sense.” As some have argued with me in the past, “dead is dead.” Except when it isn’t –when a drowning victim, not breathing, is revived, when a heart is stopped for surgery, and then restarted. Others make an inductive argument: everyone who has been born has died. (Well, as far as we know; possible exceptions are a staple of science fiction). Well, actually, that’s not even true. There are billions of people alive today who have never died, and they live in an era in which technology has advanced greatly.

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