Wmc Scholar Spins Yarns From The Frontiers Of Science

'Chicken' Author Disdains 'Crackpottery'

November 03, 1991|By Sherri Kimmel Diegel | Sherri Kimmel Diegel,Special to The Carroll County Sun

WESTMINSTER — Many authors appear self-importantly sexy on their book jackets.

Not Western Maryland College's Ed Regis.

On his latest book, he's stealing a sidelong glance into the beady eyes of a chicken -- a great big, wooly-feathered Carroll County white Cochin chicken.

How serious can this book be? Such a dust jacket and such a title: "Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly over the Edge."

Such premises: People are frozen on death to be reactivated in the future. People someday will havetheir brains "downloaded" into a computer, escaping their inefficient and mortal bodies. People will ride the spacecraft of their dreams to colonize other planets, disposing of the fractured Earth. People will tear apart the sun to prolong its existence.

"The thing about these ideas is, when you first hear about them, they sound totally insane and impossible," the science -- not science fiction -- writer isthe first to admit.

Work out the mechanics of these predictions, as the scientists in Regis' book have done, and darned if their seemingly harebrained notions aren't all within the laws of science, unlike some more plausible-sounding proposals of the past.

"For hundreds of years, people have come up with ideas for a perpetual-motion device -- which violates the second law of thermodynamics," said Regis, a slender blond man in jeans and a cotton shirt. (The second law saysrandom motion of molecules cannot be completely converted to mechanical energy except at a temperature of absolute zero.)

"Making people into computers doesn't violate any laws," he said.

He believes all of these ideas teetering on the farthest edge of science are possible, with the exception of time travel.

"But there's a question if they're desirable. I do not want to be a computer or a robot. I'm very happy being a human being."

Happy though he may be, Regis can see the point of those who want to improve on the Homo sapiens template.

"The human body could be a lot better than it is. The tortoiselives to be 200, the bristle-cone pine tree in California lives to be 4,500 years old. We have a life span of 75 years. That's stupid. It's evidence of poor design."

But just because he recognizes that men and women are all too mortal doesn't mean he's ready to sign a contract for a "whole body," or even a cheaper "neuro," in which only the decapitated head is frozen. That's what the cryonicists, or professional corpse-freezers at Alcor Life Extension Foundation, call the first steps toward eventual reanimation. Alcor has liquid nitrogen tanks full of folks idling until they can awaken to their second life cycles.

"I want to keep on living without dying, but I don't want to come back," says Regis.

Despite what skeptics might think, people who would like to start the big sleep in the deep freeze are not 'round the twist, he says.

"They're just ordinary people. There are people walking around the campus more deranged than the cryonics people."

Time out. What does this guy Regis have to do with Western Maryland College? He's the College Scholar, which "is a wonderful honorary position," says the former tenured Howard University philosophy professor.

"There's no salary, there are no real benefits other than the fact that I'm associated with a fine small liberal-arts college. When I resigned from Howard University (in 1987 to become a full-timewriter), I felt naked -- I had no ties. Then Del Palmer (former vicepresident, dean of academic affairs) invited me to be a College Scholar. I felt like a full person again."

His association with WMC, which began in 1988, has proven fruitful, as evidenced by the number of campus denizens he acknowledges in "Mambo Chicken" and his first, also widely acclaimed, science book, "Who Got Einstein's Office? Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study."

In his book about the ultra ivory tower, in Princeton, N.J., he thanks severalWMC professors.

"Harry Rosenzweig pointed out an error in the section about prime-number theory, and Jack Clark helped with fractals. Rick Dillman helped me with certain technical questions regarding computer systems. Linda Eshleman helped adapt a program to the Macintosh(computer), and Keith Richwine wrote down a list of 20 possible titles."

For "Mambo Chicken," Regis relied on librarian Mark Collier to locate a pivotal personality to interview.

One name that appearsin the acknowledgments of both books is Pamela Regis, WMC associate professor of English and Regis' wife. Regis, who's often seen in the Hoover Library doing research, was also on campus on May 2, when President Robert H. Chambers examined "Mambo Chicken" for the "Books Sandwiched In" review series.

After publishing two books applauded in Newsweek, the New York Times Book Review and the Wall Street Journal,what does the established science writer plan next to explore?

Certainly not science.

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