In the deep freeze

July 29, 2002

IT'S HARD TO imagine that Ted Williams, a record-setting slugger in youth, cantankerous iconoclast in old age, wanted to come back to life in his hobbled, 83-year-old body.

But of course, that's not what cryonics executives portend for the future. They say it's only a matter of decades before scientists will be able to resolve the riddle of death, restore the deceased to life, cure them of illness and return them to youthful vigor.

That's the pitch, if you will, that has persuaded about 100 people, including Mr. Williams' son, to have a loved one placed in a state of "cryonic suspension." In other words, frozen after death.

Interest in cryonics is on the upswing, thanks in part to Teddy Ballgame. Alcor, the Arizona facility housing Mr. Williams' remains, reports 1,000 requests for membership applications in recent weeks. And leaders in the cryonics industry are convening in Michigan next month for a summit.

True, insects, vinegar eels, brain matter and human embryos have been frozen and revived, but they can't compare to the complex character of Homo sapiens sapiens. The decision to immerse a body in a tank of liquid nitrogen for decades is hardly about being on the cutting edge of science or having a front seat for the ride into the future.

The cryonics movement, which began 30 years ago, appeals to people's vanity, self-importance, lust for life - and maybe to their curiosity (for a price from $28,000 to $120,000). It's a new-age search for the fountain of youth, an investment in the future, some might say.

But whose?

One cryonics company asks this question: "What would our world be like if we had Jefferson and Franklin, Churchill and Gandhi, Shakespeare and St. Paul, Plato and Newton and Einstein here today to lead and advise us?"

It's the wrong question to ask. Those learned and venerated men have been followed by leaders and philosophers, activists and theologians, scientists and playwrights of note. And the world has been enriched and improved because of them.

The beauty of this spinning blue planet, the intrigue of this ever-evolving community of man (and woman) is that the future is unknowable and affords tremendous possibilities for generations to come. Shakespeare and St. Paul, Churchill and Einstein had their time. So did Ted Williams.

And that's what's been lost in the renewed interest in cryonics since his death.

Cryonics pioneer Robert C.W. Ettinger, a retired physicist and 83-year-old founder of the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute, succinctly explained recently his decision to join his late wife in the deep freeze: "Life is more interesting than death."

But, of course, Mr. Ettinger couldn't possibly know that to be true.

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