Futurisms: Critiquing the project to reengineer humanity

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Robert Ettinger (1918-2011)

Robert Ettinger, whose 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality kicked off the cryonics movement, has died at the age of 92. His remains have reportedly been frozen, along with those of his mother and two wives, at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan.

We will eventually have more to say in the journal about Ettinger, the feasibility of cryonics, and the movement's true believers. For now, though, readers interested in learning more about Ettinger's claims and his life — including his service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War — can consult his Wikipedia entry, this obituary by cryonics supporter Mike Darwin, and these memorials by bloggers Mark Plus and Giulio Prisco. The London Telegraph has also just posted an obituary.

Readers wishing for more background on cryonics might consult the two most recent high-profile articles on the subject in the popular press, both from last year: the New York Times Magazine story focusing on Robin Hanson, "Till Cryonics Do Us Part" (which we discussed here), and Jill Lepore's excellent New Yorker piece, featuring probably the last substantial interview Ettinger ever gave, "The Iceman" (alas, behind a paywall). Also, Ed Regis has an excellent chapter on Ettinger and cryonics in his book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.

I hope Ettinger's admirers will take it as a sign of respect and not as a backhanded criticism of cryonics if I close simply with R.I.P.

UPDATES (oldest on top):
  • KurzweilAI has a short post up, including a statement from Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute, confirming that Ettinger "had an ice bath sitting by his bedside" when he died, and his body "is now in the cooling box." [Actually, Best would later clarify that the ice bath was in the next room; see below.] The post also includes a statement from Max More, the prominent transhumanist who recently became president and CEO of the other big cryonics outfit, Alcor. (Quick side note: Until Ettinger's death, the Cryonics Institute claimed to have the bodies of 105 of its customers stored in its facilities while Alcor claimed to have the bodies or at least the heads of 106. Now, with Ettinger's body becoming, as Best puts it, the Cryonics Institute's "106th patient," the Cryonics Institute and Alcor are tied.) (One other side note, in case you're curious about their one-syllable heroic-sounding names: Max More chose that name for himself, having been born Max T. O'Connor, while Ben Best was really born with that name.)

  •  
  • Ben Best's statement was also posted on the Cryonet mailing list, a discussion forum well known in cryonics circles. If you scroll down on that Cryonet post, you'll see several replies and remembrances, including this comment from Mark Plus: "[Ettinger] anticipated a lot of today's 'transhumanism,' yet today's H+ youngsters think they've just invented many of the ideas [he] discussed nearly 40 years ago."

  •  
  • The Cryonics Society has posted a statement (cribbed in part from Wikipedia and other blogs).

  •  
  • I haven't asked Ettinger's family and colleagues to confirm this, but it seems possible that the final recorded interview he ever gave was one to Ioannis Papadopoulos in 2010. It's on YouTube here, and Papadopoulos has posted further information and pictures here. (The page is in Greek, but here's a translated version via Google.) In the interview, Ettinger says that he "was not by any means the first person to think of these things. There have been lots of others, there've been many others, some of them thousands of years ago. But, as it happens, I was the first one to put it together in a coherent way in book-length form." Another fairly recent recorded interview with Ettinger, conducted by filmmaker Jeph Porter, can be found in his short 2007 documentary "Dying for Immortality." (Ettinger first appears around 7 minutes and 30 seconds.) Both videos include tours of cryonics facilities, although neither tour is led by Ettinger.

  •  
  • Washington Post obituarist Emma Brown quotes Ettinger's son David: "We're obviously sad" but "we were able to freeze him under optimum conditions, so he's got another chance." She also quotes an interview Ettinger apparently gave the Detroit News last year: "If both of my wives are revived ... that will be a high class problem." She also quotes a short letter by Ettinger published almost exactly one year ago in the New York Times Magazine: "the tide of history is with us."

  •  
  • In a short post over on his blog, economist Tyler Cowen notes that few newspapers have printed an obituary for Ettinger so far, jokingly adding that he doubts the silence "is an intended tribute to Ettinger's ideas."

  •  
  • The Cryonics Institute, which Ettinger founded and which now stores his body, has just put out a press release: "Founder of Cryonics Movement Dies, is Frozen at Cryonics Institute."

  •  
  • Michigan reporter Jonathan Oosting interviewed Ettinger's son David this morning (July 25, 2011): "I never had a conversation about how he would be remembered.... Memorial services and funerals didn't interest him. He was interested in practically preserving his life."

  •  
  • Another obituary, this time from the Detroit News's Kim Kozlowski, who notes that David Ettinger "said there was discussion about having" a memorial service for his father, even though his father "didn't want" one. In January 2010, Kozlowski published an interview with Ettinger (unfortunately behind a paywall) that was the source of Ettinger's remark that, if he and both of his late wives were someday reanimated, he would face "a high class problem." Out of context, it sounds like a joke. But in Kozlowski's original 2010 article, Ettinger goes on to discuss the possibility more seriously: "I would be lucky if they both wanted to be with me. But maybe neither one of them will want me." Ettinger also told Kozlowski that he was sad that his brother had given up on cryonics before dying in 1998: "That was one of my major sorrows.... He was my brother. I had hoped to save him from death."

  •  
  • The only thing worth mentioning about this short Ettinger notice on io9 is the picture they chose to put at the top. It shows Ettinger standing with Bob Nelson, who is an extremely controversial figure in the cryonics movement. Nelson played a part in some of the earliest cryonic freezings, but was also involved in a scandal that resulted in several decomposed bodies. To learn more about Nelson, you can see these stories that Google brings up, or you can listen to this 2008 episode of the radio show This American Life, which is reportedly being adapted into a movie starring Paul Rudd (presumably as Nelson).

  •  
  • Here are two short newswire obituaries, from the Associated Press and Agence France-Press.

  •  
  • "Pursuing Immortality, He Followed a Frozen Path": Stephen Miller's obituary of Ettinger in the Wall Street Journal includes at least one item I hadn't seen mentioned elsewhere: Ettinger "rejected cloning as an alternative route to immortality, because 'all it does is get you a twin.'"

  •  
  • From Ben Best, president of the Cryonics Institute, more details about Ettinger's death and the freezing of his body. Best says that he had personally been present for every cryopreservation since mid-2005 (that's more than thirty bodies), but he happened to be traveling when Ettinger died. Best says that he participated a bit by telephone, and that Ettinger's cryopreservation "went well without me." He also offers this detail about the moments after Ettinger's death (correcting an earlier statement Best made over the weekend): "His head was placed in a cube full of ice within 30 seconds of pronouncement [of death], and the ice bath was brought from the next room ... and set up within the next minute" rather than instantly.

6 comments:

  1. There's something especially tragic about the death of a man who hoped to live forever. Thank you for taking a moment to mark his passing.

    ReplyDelete
  2. And yet we see millions of Americans, possibly up to a third of the population, who believe they'll get "raptured" at any moment. The main promoters of this nonsense in our lifetimes have reached their 70's and 80's by now, like John Hagee, Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey and Harold Camping. I would submit that the actuarial tables have a better track record of predicting their futures than "bible prophecy." I consider these charlatans and their fellow rapture-believers' lives "tragic," and they outnumber cryonicists in the U.S. by about 100,000 to one.

    Ettinger, by contrast, at least tried to apply some scientific rationality to the problem of creating medical time travel to reach an era where the advanced health care could revive people from a frozen state and keep them in good physical and cognitive condition indefinitely. Mike Darwin's obituary about Ettinger, referenced above, describes just how far ahead of his time Ettinger saw, and what he could infer about the potentials of science and medicine from such preliminary findings, the implications of which we still haven't fully absorbed in the early 21st Century.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Rest in peace, Robert -- as temporarily as possible. You will be remembered while you are gone. Congratulations on the successful prompt cooldown. I hope to see you again one day.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Jonathan, don't mourn Robert. He's not dead; he is on the last-ditch ambulance ride to the future known as cryonics. He was cryopreserved in a state from which today's medicine cannot allow him to recover, but tomorrow's will. It's not magic -- he will be recoverable because he was preserved still relatively intact; if he had been allowed to deteriorate much further without intervention, at some point he would have become unrecoverable even by future medicine. As it is, rejoice in that he received the best cryopreservation possible, and look forward to the day when he, his mother, and his wives can be repaired, revived, and reunited.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "That is not dead which can eternal lie.
    And with strange æons even death may die." --- H.P. Lovecraft

    I was reminded somehow.

    ReplyDelete
  6. It has been my experience that cryonics is often held to a double standard:

    http://www.depressedmetabolism.com/2011/07/29/the-double-standard-about-cryonics/

    Most significant is the presumption of death as the default position. That the burden of argument is on those who choose to stay alive. I think this position is analogous to the presumption of unfreedom over freedom. The notion that freedom and autonomy itself is not the default condition, but must be derived from some other source.

    I consider life, freedom, and autonomy to be the default position, and that the burden of argument lies on those who seek to restrict such.

    ReplyDelete

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field. Comments are moderated for civility and relevance and will not appear until the blog's editors have approved them.]