Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Mistakes were Made

This looks to be a long post, and I'm feeling kinda preachy. Preachy atheists aren't that much fun, (are you listening, Richard Dawkins?), but this has been on my mind.

This American Life is a fun NPR program. The host and his reporters interview a large variety of people, often introducing a slice of life that I would otherwise be unaware of. Sometimes it's intensely interesting, occasionally I feel like I've just wasted an hour of my lfe. But its great for passing the time in the car, and you can download them onto your ipod for listening at your convenience.

On our trip last weekend, we listened to an episode called "Mistakes were made." The main story was about cryogenics. I very vaguely recall hearing something about this on the news, years ago. Turns out a bunch of laypeople in (where else) southern California became very interested in cryogenics. They really, really wanted to believe that you could freeze a person who had died, and eventually science will figure things out enough in order to thaw them and cure them of their illness so that life could continue.

But really really wishing for something doesn't make it so. Trust me.

They had some scientific advisors on the board of their official organization, who said the science wasn't there yet, but research was active and ongoing.

Until someone died. Someone on the organization, who really wanted to be frozen. So they froze her.

The advisory scientists fled, as well they should have.

The story snowballs from there, culminating in multiple bodies being frozen in faulty containers (piled up as they were only intended for one person), thawing completely from time to time. The protagonist of the story is at worst a criminal with poorly disguised malintent, at best a buffoon with good intentions.

Which isn't good enough for me. Why, oh why, do people who know nothing about science think that just because something sounds right to them, and at heart they have good intentions, they are remotely qualified to advise other people on what to do? In my daily universe this is the Suzanne Summers of the world. Naturopathic doctors. Some chiropractors. A whole host of well-meaning idiots, who do harm preaching how they wish the world work, as if it actually worked that way.

Sidebar, but a great outdoorsman has more respect for a gun than a punky kid. A great boat captain absolutely respects the dangers of the water, and the machinery he drives. And a good doctor or scientist understands and respects the limitations of their craft as well. (As promised....preachy.)

But my big issue with the story was the more obvious one. Do, functional, assuming somewhat educated....truly believe that we can figure out how to outsmart death? Really? If you consider that everything, everybody, who has ever ever lived for the last kajillion years is now dead, can you really see this as something avoidable? And who in their right mind would even want to be frozen, to be woken up in 50, 100, 500 years? Who would they know? Their friends, family will all be gone. Not to even touch on the issue of finite resources, letting someone else have a turn on the merry-go-round.

I don't really understand why that story got under my skin so much, but it did. We so need to come to grips with death. It is part of life, part of us.


Cathy said...

Oh, this reminds me of that movie with Mel Gibson and I think John Goodman. Jamie Lee Curtis was also in it. "Forever Young"...Gibson and Goodman are air force pilots. I can't remember the specifics but Gibson has Goodman freeze him for some experiment and he is supposed to thaw him, and wake him up, in a year. During that year though, Goodman dies and no one else knows that Gibson is some place frozen.

Long story short, some kids find this machine he is in 50 years later, opening the top, and allowing him to thaw....and on and on it goes.....Pretty weird stuff and I also think the idea of cryogenics is weird.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you.

When I saw this website I was floored!

Don't know if I'd really want to come back 100 years after my death.

Anonymous said...

I've read your blog for awhile, & would like to thank you for sharing. =o)

As for the broadcast...I heard it too and felt it grate my nerves, equally if not more so since I am a resident of darling So Cal. I think worse than hearing about that whole situation, is knowing & having friends who believe they can beat death and sign up for these silly things. Oy. Too much sci fi, not enough scientific fact.

Anonymous said...

Most people haven't seen what you have and aren't too smart either. They are just "awishing and ahoping."


Wabi said...

Oh, I heard that TAM story awhile back, too. The part where that family opted to freeze their child after she died from cancer left me simultaneously sympathetic and completely horrified. I imagine that was hard to hear.

Magpie said...

Hey, if I thought for a moment it would work, I'd sign up. Are you not curious to see how the world advances beyond our time? I am.

I've course, I'd die of shame from the sheer hubris of having spent a ton of money so that my selfish, wealthy-arse could be mocked by future generations. So it's not like I'd have time to see much.

...but in all seriousness, I think life extension technologies are going to be a big issue in the next 50-100 years. Not THIS technology, of course, but it really isn't out of the possible that life spans (for those lucky enough to have access to the right stuff, at least) may grow almost as fast as we age, to a certain point. How will society change if my grandkids' life expectancies get to 150 years or more?

Tiny example: would it even be healthy for two people to stay married for 130 years, based on a committment made when they were, relatively speaking, children?

Dr. Smak said...

Wabi- Actually, no, not hard to hear, not sure why?

Magpie- As a science dork, f course the topic is intensely interesting, and I don't think for a second that it is out of the realm of practical possibility. As soon as 50 years? Wouldn't shock me.

But I would say that there is zero chance that if you wait for a person to die, pack them in ice, even relatively quickly, and then pop them in a freezer anything useful will ever come of it.

I'm thinking of something more along the lines of Han Solo.

And I do think that the secondary questions of who and why are looming. Maybe it will be something akin to a trip to the moon: several people die in the process, a couple lucky souls get to experience it, and it costs a gazillion bucks in tax money that probably could have been put to better use.


Magpie said...

Oh yeah, absolutely. People selling freezer space need a good smackin'.