TCS Daily

Ted's Excellent Adventure

By Ronald Bailey - July 12, 2002 12:00 AM

The great slugger Ted Williams is apparently reaching more than mere Baseball Hall of Fame immortality. Woody Allen once said, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying." Unfortunately for Ted Williams, not dying wasn't an option, so he apparently chose a backup plan: cryonics. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona is freezing his body in liquid nitrogen.

As all the world now knows, Williams having been put on ice has sparked a family feud between one of his daughters and one of his sons. The sci-fi novel The First Immortal by James Halperin is eerily prescient about how vicious family disputes over cryonically suspended loved ones might play out. In the novel children fight for decades over the cryonically suspended body of entrepreneur Benjamin Franklin Smith until the lawyers had consumed the entire family fortune. (The more things change, the more they remain the same.) Fortunately Smith survives the legal battles over his frozen body is reanimated in 2072.

Nearly 100 patients have had themselves put on ice waiting for the advent of new technologies to reanimate them. They hope to wake up one day with young, disease free bodies. Cryonicists admit that no one has yet come close to being reanimated and that they really don't know exactly what technologies will achieve that goal. Many hope that nanotechnology will develop tiny molecular machines that will be able to race through a thawing body and repair the damage caused by disease and by the process of freezing.

Alcor charges patients between $50,000 for a "neural," that is freezing just a patient's head, and $120,000 for a full body freeze. The bulk of the payments come from life insurance policies that have been specially purchased to cover the expenses of suspension.

Will cryonics work? Who knows? Cryonicists put it this way: "The clinical trials are in progress. Come back in a century and we'll give you a reliable answer." Cryonicists divide the world into two groups, those who are experimenting with cryonics by being frozen vs. those who just die and are buried. Which would you rather be in, they ask: the control group or the experimental group?

Ted Williams' daughter is claiming that her half-brother, by freezing her father, is scheming to sell Williams' DNA some day. If that's the plan it's stupid since the brother could get all the DNA he'd ever want simply from taking a vial of blood. What is clear is that the daughter is expressing the typical "yuck" reaction that most people have when encountering anything new. Her reaction is shared by many Americans as most online polls show that more 80 percent of respondents are against freezing people.

I once asked a very skeptical friend of mine: "If I could convince you that there was a one percent chance it would work, would it be worth it to buy the life insurance and be suspended?" He thought for a moment, and said, "Yeah, it would. Otherwise I'm just dead." I think it is very likely that as people see the massive advances in technology over the coming decades, more and more will take the chance, however slender, at renewed life offered by cryonics.

If Teddy Ballgame indeed left a will that said he wanted to be suspended, then his family should let him begin his journey to the future in peace. If his daughter is right, he's dead anyway. If she's wrong, she will have guaranteed that he will never hit a baseball again.

Ronald Bailey, Reason Magazine's science correspondent

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