MEME 5.01

by David S. Bennahum

In this issue of MEME:

The MEME Book Club: An excerpt from Apocalypse Pretty Soon, by Alex Heard.


(W.W. Norton &Co., January 1999; USD$ 24.95)

Death, Be Not In My Face

"Obviously, I'm an optimist to some degree," said Larry Wood, an

amiable, hardbodied 50-year-old with fashion-forward ideas about

the future of the human body, "but I really believe we could be the

first generation that's going to live forever. Either that, or we'll be

the last generation to die."

That's optimism, all right, though the second part might inspire

pretty bleak daydreams. Suppose you believe, as Wood does, that

technology has the potential to conquer aging someday, vastly

increasing human longevity, perhaps delivering the ultimate gift:

physical immortality. Now suppose you die a year before the

technology rolls out. You wouldn't know what you'd missed, but for

Wood there's infinite agony in just knowing he might miss it.

Extrapolating hopefully from real-world developments in aging

research - which could, in theory, increase the maximum human

lifespan by a few years or decades during the 21st century - he's

convinced that scientists will deliver immortality within 50 years, so

he's determined to hang on.

Through the slight fuzz of a long-distance connection he described

his predicament. "The whole thing is this," he said. "You do

whatever you can for the next 10 years. Then the next 10 years."

For Wood this has meant a longtime involvement with "life

extension," a blanket term for a variegated pile of fringe health

regimens and futuristic enthusiasms. His quest has taken him down

some tangled paths - for a while he was interested in cryonics, or

body freezing, in hopes that he could be thawed and brought back

from the dead in the future - and once it even landed him in jail. In

1990 Wood, who holds an undergraduate degree in biochemistry

from Cornell, started a company called Unlimited Longevity

Research that sold life-extension products, mainly dietary

supplements and drugs. That year agents from the Food and Drug

Administration raided his offices in Thousand Oaks, California.

After a complicated flurry of legal tussling, Wood was eventually

charged with interstate commerce of a controversial body-enhancing

substance called G.H.B. He served six months, though his conviction

was later overturned on appeal.

When I first talked to Wood in the summer of 1997, he had given

up on cryonics ("It doesn't work"), placing all his bets on exercise

and supplements. His routine included regular exercise (he had

$40,000 worth of fitness equipment in his garage), healthy habits (a

balanced diet, not much red meat, no smoking or hard alcohol), and

daily intake of dietary extras.

Lots and lots of extras. Wood faxed me his menu, which added up

to roughly 140 grams of liquids, powders, and capsules that he

swallowed or injected every day. Some items were typical enough,

including a whopping 10 grams daily of Vitamin C. Some were

things whose anti-aging properties or safety is highly controversial -

like melatonin, a presumed "antioxidant," or dehydroepiandrosterone

(D.H.E.A.), a naturally produced hormone whose manufacture in the

body declines with age. Life extensionists believe that swallowing it

can restore youthful vigor.

Most, whatever they're for, were exotic chemicals that to my

layman's ear sounded like lawn-and-garden sprays: ornithine,

virazide, glutathione.

Is it safe to mix all this stuff together?

Wood doesn't really know. He's his own lab rat, out there alone on

the megadosing frontier, and he's aware that he might be hurting

himself. "One person told me I'll probably die of liver cancer," he

said cheerfully. As a safeguard, Wood makes regular visits to the

doctor for blood tests that might reveal signs of "imbalance" that

could lead to organ damage.

In the end, he feels certain he'll be fine, an opinion that is

definitely not shared by Dr. Victor Herbert, a physician and

nutrition expert who (at my request) inspected Wood's intake, and

who basically shrieked that Wood was committing supplement

suicide. "This will shorten his life," he said. "It may kill him of

cancer - brain, pancreas, testes, prostate, you name it. It will produce

liver damage."

His advice for Wood? "Don't touch this stuff!"

So there you have it. Physically, Wood is either saving himself or

hastening his demise. But how about spiritually? What, if anything, is

going on there?

Obviously, Wood's goals aren't cozy-puffy metaphysical. He's a

rock-ribbed atheist, focused entirely on the material preservation of

his body. Still, you could argue that he represents a new type of

spiritual seeker. At a time when science has robbed many people of

their ability to believe in an afterlife, Wood is fantasizing about an

immortalizing relationship with a newer, more accessible god:

technology. In exchange for accepting the chilly scientific verdict

that we are, in the end, little more than meat puppets, soulless life

support systems for our D.N.A., he just wants somebody, somehow,

to keep the puppet dancing longer.

In a way, it isn't asking too much. Science hasn't been all that nice

to our souls, but it has been very good for our "containers," so

there's a natural human tendency to want more. The average lifespan

in the United States has almost doubled since 1900, thanks mainly to

advances in medicine and nutrition, and there are scientists, real

ones, who think lifespans could be doubled again during the 21st


Wood isn't alone in his fidgety longing. He's joined by a fairly

sizable subculture of Americans who clamor for a life-extending fix.

Most aren't as intense as Wood, but some are, and some bring a

surprising measure of spirituality to their immortalist dream. One of

the more self-consciously "religious" buffs is Herb Bowie, 46, an

Arizona-based life-extensionist and the author of Why Die?, an odd

little book that pushes the unique notion that physical immortality is

not only coming, but that people can make it happen by having faith

that it's coming. It's a tricky idea that grows out of an old New Age

practice called Rebirthing, which has it that what people believe

influences their physical, spiritual, and emotional "reality" in

tangible ways, at a fundamental level.

"An extension of that," Bowie explained, "is the idea that perhaps

even death is something we create through a combination of social

and mental conditioning." Bowie urges his readers to absorb the

deep-soul conviction that immortality is their birthright and to stop

feeling guilty about wanting it. If enough people do so,

immortalizing faith would become immortalizing fact: with the

majority of the world clamoring to live forever, the mighty engines

of government and commerce would, by universal demand, be

redirected toward the goal, and we would see a "war on aging"

comparable to the golden age of the space race.

The believer's task is to ... well, to believe this, and to live as if

immortality were coming soon. "Immortality is something I already

am," reads one of Bowie's good-news tenets, "something I am

creating for myself on a daily basis."

That's a challenging faith commitment, but Bowie is firm about it.

"If scientists are going to offer us the option of extending the human

lifespan through technology," he told me, "we have to start resolving

these conflicts in our psyche."

The human yearning to live forever is an ancient literary theme,

usually delivered with a castor-oily dose of warning: Immortality is

for the gods, not men. Greek mythology tells of Sibylla, a young

woman whom Apollo gave eternal life but (mean guy) without

eternal youth. Sibylla grayed and shrank until she fit inside a tiny

bottle, a forlorn creature known as the Sibyl who peeped out a sad,

endless refrain: "I only want to die!"

In Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift presented the struldbrugs,

rare beings who were born with the gift of immortality. Gulliver

assumed they would be "happiest beyond all comparison." In fact,

they just kept getting older, sicker, and crabbier, and they too longed

for death's release. Swift also presented an ultra-rationalist attitude

toward mortality by introducing the Houyhnhnms, the wise horse-

beings Gulliver met during his final set of adventures. The horses

regarded Gulliver as a beast, indistinguishable from the Yahoos, the

noxious, carnal, cowardly humanoids who lived only for their

grossest material pleasures. The horses saw death stoically, as the

natural, unremarkable end to a life properly lived, and expressed

"neither joy nor grief" when a fellow horse passed on.

Swift wasn't necessarily endorsing this as the right attitude for

people, which is good, because I doubt many humans could be so

Houyhnhnm-cool about death. We're passionate creatures, and most

of us assume that when the time comes we'll splutter and yowl like a

Yahoo who's stubbed his toe. Life-extension believers represent a

third attitude: Steely defiance. They believe in directed rage, fighting

back, refusing to accept the final defeat.

Obviously, many informed people consider this outlook bizarre,

ignorant, and silly. One prominent critic of the immortalist fantasy is

Dr. Leonard Hayflick, a biogerontologist whose name is attached to a

term that life-extension buffs love to hate: the Hayflick Limit.

Hayflick earned fame in the 60's when he and a colleague debunked a

longstanding belief that normal human cells in a tissue culture were

immortal. His work showed that normal cells die after about 50

divisions, indicating that they have a built-in mortality "clock."

Recent work has suggested that his "limit" may not, in fact, be

insurmountable, but he still doubts that scientists will ever figure out

a way to string out the current maximum lifespan of around 125.

Moreover, pointing at the social problems super-longevity would

bring - start with overpopulation - he just thinks it's a bad idea.

"Let's say a little white immortality pill does become available

tomorrow," Hayflick told me. "Do we really want people to have it?

I can think of a lot of people - Hitler, Stalin, serial killers, rapists -

who I wouldn't want to see live forever. We should leave these

things to nature."

The immortality faithful certainly don't buy that. "Hayflick is

tired," said Will Block, a co-founder of the Life Extension

Foundation, a California-based outfit that sells life-extension

products. "He falls into a group that has an almost federal-

department-of-aging view, which is one that ignores enormous

amounts of exciting work and doesn't have a visionary quality."

The "federal" snipe is a reference to the National Institute on

Aging, a government research body that tends to look at aging from

a droopy "let's keep people healthy longer" perspective that both

bores and annoys the buffs. Enough people share Block's conviction

- tens of thousands, I'd estimate, based on the sales figures they claim

- that a thriving service sector exists to fill their needs, made up of

private research groups, mail-order supplement providers, a

publishing mini-genre, and renegade clinics that provide powerful

substances like human growth hormone (another body-juice that

declines naturally as you age) to anyone willing to pay for expensive


Block's group is one of about a half dozen whose entire business

consists of selling anti-aging nostrums like D.H.E.A. and multi-

substance wellness blends with names like Life Extension Mix and

Super Radical Shield. Elsewhere, mass-market longevity books make

dazzling promises that beckon readers to share the dream. The

Melatonin Miracle, a best-seller in 1995, focuses on melatonin's

alleged anti-aging benefits. Reversing Human Aging says the answer

lies in telomeres - tiny chromosomal tips that are depleted every time

a healthy cell divides - and predicts that within 20 years science will

learn how to replenish them and deliver lifespans of "200, possibly

500 years." Grow Young with H.G.H., a book by an energetic

Chicago-based buff named Ronald Klatz, touts human growth

hormone as "the amazing medically proven" way to "reverse" the

effects of aging.

All of these claims are a stretch. Most mainstream gerontology

researchers maintain that the anti-aging benefits of H.G.H.,

D.H.E.A., and melatonin are unproved or nonexistent. Furthermore,

since the aging process is still largely a mystery, victory dances are a

bit premature. Whatever causes aging (it may be the ravages of

metabolism on cells, or the environment, a genetically encoded

cellular lifespan, or something else), the battle is far from being

won, and it may never be.

And yet, as the buffs are keenly aware, some serious scientists do

suggest that research could add several healthy decades to the human


"The idea that lifespan can be extended has moved from being a

fringe idea to a subject for serious research," said Dr. Thomas

Johnson, a geneticist at the University of Colorado who, in one

promising area of inquiry, has manipulated roundworm genes in a

way that doubles the creatures' lives. He's convinced that a drug

could someday be developed that would neutralize protein products

that lead to aging in cells, and he's involved in a new company -

GenoPlex, based in Boulder, Colo. - that hopes to do this. He

believes that doubled human lifespans are possible, perhaps in our


Another optimist is Dr. Roy L. Walford, a pathologist and

researcher at U.C.L.A. who served as the team physician during the

Biosphere 2 project, in which a squad of humans lived for two years

inside a sealed-off indoor ecosystem. Walford's baby is calorie

restriction. This sounds strange, but it's based on a long-recognized

fact: reducing calorie intake in lab mice extends their lives

dramatically, and it's the only technique proven to do so in a

mammal. Whether it works for people is still an open question - data

released in 1997 indicates that it works in lower primates - but

Walford is a believer. He told me that the de facto calorie restriction

practiced inside Biosphere 2 (the Biospherians weren't able to grow

enough food in there, so they fasted involuntarily) resulted in a

range of quantifiable benefits, like dramatically decreased cholesterol


Some of Walford's colleagues think he's gone off the deep end

with his extrapolations, but at 73, he was still practicing the gospel,

living on an 1,800-calorie-a-day diet, as opposed to the

recommended 2,000 to 2,500 for adults. He insisted that a person

who started calorie-restricting at 18 would have a chance of living to


In good health? "It's possible. People make the mistake of getting

into a struldbrugs obsession," he said, referring to those miserable

Swiftian immortals.

"That's not the case," he added with grumpy certainty. "The health

curve will increase with the survival curve."

And what would be the upper limit on that survival curve?

"Limit? I don't see a limit."

Intrigued by such pronouncements, I decided to visit a few

prominent life-extensionists. Not the research people, but the buffs in

the trenches, the strivers and self-picklers and supplementers who

live in painful awareness of the miracles that might (or might not)

await them in the years ahead. A few calls revealed a clear pattern of

buff concentration. Florida, Arizona, Nevada, and Southern

California - Meccas of youthful narcissism and elderly roosting -

were all hotspots. For efficiency's sake, I settled on a swing through

the southwest.

First stop: Tonapah, Nevada, a tiny, high-desert outback town

several hours north of Las Vegas. Tonapah is home to a pair of

founding figures in the popular longevity subculture, Durk Pearson

and Sandy Shaw, a husband-and-wife team who in 1982 published

Life Extension, A Practical Scientific Approach, an 858-page

summary of the free-radical theory of aging. Free radicals are

byproducts of chemical processes in the body; some researchers

believe they damage cells in a way that produces the effects of aging.

Durk and Sandy, drawing partly on the research of Dr. Denham

Harman, a researcher at the University of Nebraska, recommended

taking massive doses of antioxidants to reduce the free radicals'

effects. Although critics slammed the book as a factually sloppy

farrago of other people's work, a fascinated public kept it on best-

seller lists for months, making Durk and Sandy the closest thing the

movement has had to celebrities.

I heard about them from the first life-extension buff I ever

encountered: Jack Wheeler, a flamboyant libertarian and adventure-

travel guide whom I met in 1993. Wheeler said Durk and Sandy

introduced him to life extension way back in the 60's, when they

became friends on the Southern California libertarian circuit. Durk

and Sandy had an additional interest in life extension, which

dovetailed nicely with their unhappy-with-government ideas. (The

buffs are usually prickly about government, their gripe being,

usually, that heavy-handed federal regulators are clumsily, stupidly

standing between the people and the life-extending substances that

could save them.) They'd read about Harman's work in science

journals, and were already whipping up their own experimental

batches of antioxidant mix using bulk tubs of pharmaceutical grade

vitamin powder.

"They had this formula - lots of Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and lots of

B - that they made in their own lab," Wheeler recalled. "I'd go visit

them and help mix it up. They didn't have any encapsulation

equipment, so we would just carry this powder around in plastic bags

and choke it down by the spoonful. It tasted awful. Oh, god! You

have no idea!"

Wheeler helped make Durk and Sandy famous. He'd built a name

for himself as a boy adventurer and globe-trotting action man - he

guided tourist fly-ins to the North Pole, for example - and he was a

frequent guest on "The Merv Griffin Show." In a stirring moment of

show-biz synergy, Wheeler told Merv about Durk, an act that led to

many "Merv" appearances by Durk and Sandy and, eventually, the

book contract. Durk and Sandy spent much of the 80's stoking their

career, touring life-extension gatherings and health-food expos,

creating and licensing products, and pushing their ideas while

wearing glitter-rock costumes that made them look like refugees

from "Starlight Express."

Durk and Sandy remained high-profile during the late-80's "smart

nutrient" craze, but when I talked to Wheeler in 1997, I realized I

hadn't seen any sign of them for a while. Had they given up? Or


Nope, said Wheeler. They were fine, and as far as he knew, they

were still figuring to live a long, long time. How long?

"Well, they say 30,000 years." Wheeler explained the reasoning:

Durk and Sandy's mixes would keep them going for another 50

years, long enough, perhaps, for the "rapid doubling" of scientific

knowledge to solve the last riddles about aging. Wheeler shared their

hopes, though as a "safety net" he was looking into a technique they

weren't interested in: cryonic freezing after death, with the hope that

he could be thawed someday and revived.

"That's the bet, anyway," he said.

My road trip from Las Vegas to Tonapah involved a five-hour

northward squiggle through a mountainous, increasingly Martian

landscape. Nye County is old silver-mining territory that these days

is better-known for a streak of libertarian cussedness. (A few years

ago, Nye County officials tried to declare federal environmental laws

null and void in the county.) Durk and Sandy moved there from

Southern California to stretch their freedom-loving legs; the

breaking came when local zoning nannies refused to let them build a

personal "library" in their backyard.

On a cool summer afternoon, Durk picked me up on the tiny

commercial strip in Tonapah, smiling behind the wheel of a big

white truck. I followed him to his house, which was perched on a

dry, scruffy hill above town. In his emphatic, analytical voice, he

explained that the truck itself factored into his personal life-extension


"The vehicle weighs forty-six-hundred pounds. It has a chrome

moly-steel roll bar in it. So if some drunk idiot in a twenty-five-

hundred-pound car crashes into me, he's likely to get killed, and I'm

likely to get a few bruises and aches and pains."

At 54, Durk looked healthy - he was a big, strapping guy - but he

also looked his age, maybe older. His signature feature was a frizzy

mane of Peter Frampton hair that had turned gray. Sandy, also 54,

looked her age too. A slim, dark-haired woman who spoke in an

excited bray, she greeted me inside a modest dwelling that was

unbelievably cluttered with bric-a-brac, art, and scientific journals.

The walls and rooms were crowded with images of Durk and Sandy

in their glitzy 80's prime, but as they showed me around, they

explained that these days they rarely left home. They made money by

licensing their mixes and preferred to stick around the pad, beetling

through scientific journals and books. They subscribed to roughly 50

of them - everything from Cell to Free Radical Biology & Medicine

- at a cost of $15,000 a year. Out back on a dusty lot they were

building the new library and lab to hold it all.

We cozied up outside. Durk stretched out on an old chaise longue,

Sandy sat in a chair. Wheeler's 30,000-year figure turned out to be a

stretch, but they did have great anticipations.

"I really don't expect to live forever because if nothing else

accidents will get you sooner or later," Durk said. "That could be a

very long time, though. If it were possible to maintain a person's

health at what it was in the early 20's - and we don't know how to do

that yet, we may never know how, but it's certainly a worthy goal -

you would have an average time to death of about 800 years. So you

eliminate things like common accidents, slips and falls in the shower,

which is easy enough to do. You eliminate all that and it might be

like 2,200 years mean time to death. That's a very long time."

"There's an awful lot an individual can do to reduce the risk of

accidents," Sandy put in quickly.

Those were large "ifs." I asked them what, exactly, would do away

with aging? Durk assumed that genetic research will eventually

identify the precise genes that both cause and counteract aging and

disease. "The next step, then, is to find out what those good genes are

and get them. I really think that type of therapy will be as common

50 years from now as giving a kid a shot to immunize him against

diphtheria and whooping cough."

"I think 25 years from now," Sandy said.

"How will you 'get them'?"

"You put the genes in," said Durk. "You inject an adenovirus that

contains that good gene, and if effects all your cells. Like a cold."

"The doubling for knowledge in the area of aging mechanisms is

now, say, five years," he continued. "We're 54. The idea that science

will not understand what causes aging and be able to deal with it in

another half century is ludicrous. By the time we're 80, aging will be

as irrelevant as smallpox."

That's a major leap of faith, but Durk and Sandy have made it.

And they were surprisingly blasé about it all, like a pair of lounging

cats waiting for someone to give them an immortalizing scratch on

the belly. Whether they believed all this deep down or not, I can't

say, but they seemed very happy, and there was something musky

and disheveled about their "crib" that hinted at great delight in

Yahoo carnality. Maybe they were living in a dream world, but I had

to admire their quirky joi de vivre. I asked them to walk me through

their daily routines.

"O.K.," said Durk, sitting up. "We get up in the morning and we

take our first dose of nutrient supplements for the day. We also take

brain foods, nutrient supplements designed to help the brain."

"These are substances the brain can use to make

neurotransmitters," Sandy interjected.

"Um, all right. Are all these things pills?"

"No. These are drinks. It's a very nice-tasting iced tea."

They laid out the rest, explaining that, basically, they glug this

stuff four times a day, try to avoid stress, and eat what they want.

They didn't buy calorie restriction as a viable option for themselves -

why live that way? - a conviction they vividly demonstrated later,

when we went to lunch at a local Mexican food restaurant and

downed beef tostadas topped with enough sour cream to clog the


Jack Wheeler, I recalled, was capable of gluttony, but he always

performed penance with intense physical activity. "You both

probably exercise a lot, right?"

"No," Durk said shamelessly, "we really don't do any formal


"We do believe we should be doing more exercise," Sandy said,

sounding guilty.

"Ahhh, frankly, we prefer to read."

"Hey," I said. "I'm not judging you. I was just asking."

"Neither of us really cares for repetitive-type exercise," Sandy

confessed with a gush of relief. "It just bores us silly."

Fine, no exercise. Plenty of red meat and fat. No interest in

freezing. Clearly, Durk and Sandy might need a safety net. What

about cloning? Would that be useful to them?

"Aaaah, a clone is just a twin, it's not you," Durk sighed, adding

that the technology did have tangy potential: It would eventually be

possible to take a cloned human liver cell, implant it in a pig, and

grow a new human liver that could then be transplanted to a person.

"And there you go," he said brightly, "you'll get yourself a new

liver and a bunch of bacon!"

I'd read somewhere that it would be possible to clone yourself and

"harvest" organs from your twin. "But I don't understand that," I

said, hoping to steer our talk into shadowy territory. "Wouldn't that

be rather ... ghastly for the clone?"

Sandy: "I think they're talking about a clone that would have no

brain. It would be decerebrate. So it wouldn't really be a person at

all, it would just be a factory of organs."

"Aaaah," said Durk, waving that off. "They won't need that. It'll

be a lot easier to use a pig."

Last question: Did they really expect to be alive far, far, far in the


"I'd be more surprised if it didn't happen than if it did," said


Sandy nodded. "We've got a tremendous opportunity."

Durk and Sandy may be happy to "wait and see" about immortality,

but some life-extension buffs feel compelled to take action. No one

exemplifies this spirit better than Saul Kent, a gray and craggy 58-

year-old based in Southern California. Kent is a layperson, but he

has long been involved in amateur animal experiments designed to

"perfect" that famously controversial backup technique: cryonic

freezing. Among other things, Kent and his pals have lowered the

body temperature of lab animals close to the freezing point, and

warmed them again, to see what they can withstand and to study the

effects of frigid temperatures on cells.

"For several years now, we've been able to take dogs to a few

degrees above freezing and revive them," Kent told me soon after we

met. "I have a pet dog named Franklin who went through that


Kent was fielding my questions on a sunny Saturday morning in

the lobby of a generic, one-story office building, home to a mad

scientist's lair called 21st Century Medicine. Mild, clinical chemical

smells wafted through the lobby, and as we sat there, I couldn't help

but notice how much Kent actually looked like a mad scientist. He

had a leathery-lipless Frankenstein mouth, wild, stringy Igor hair,

and very, very intense eyes.

Surprisingly, I found myself warming to the man. Kent had been a

serious grouch when I first called him up, but in person he had a

(moderately) lively sense of humor that animated his funereal

bearing, and he was able to joke about his strange fixation. "At the

age of four," he said, smiling, "I realized that people die, and I

decided that would not be a good idea."

On the downside, there were those pooch experiments, which

sounded icky and senseless. Kent made me promise not to reveal his

office's address, because he feared attack by animal-rights advocates.

As well he might. Over the years dozens of dogs have died in the

name of Kent's certitude that cryonic preservation or low-

temperature "suspended animation" can work, despite obstacles that

have convinced bona fide scientists that these ideas - particularly

freezing - are absurd. First, icing down bodies is a destructive

process: When you freeze someone, spiky ice crystals form that

rupture cells and wreck organs. Second, when people are frozen,

they're dead. Its many miracles notwithstanding, science has yet to

figure out how to bring anyone back to life.

All the same, Kent decided long ago that he could not just sit on his

hands waiting for science to deliver longer lifespans. 21st Century

Medicine is the research arm of the Life Extension Foundation, a

supplement-selling, Florida-based outfit that Kent founded with a

fellow buff named Bill Faloon. In 1997, flush with cash from the

sale of anti-aging nostrums and other supplements, Kent and Faloon

embarked on the Life Span Project, a multi-year, multi-million-

dollar private research effort designed to "blaze new pathways" in

longevity research.

The project had various parts, including a tie-in with credentialed

researchers at the University of Wisconsin and the University of

California at Riverside to test the rejuvenation properties of

substances like melatonin on elderly rodents. Dubious-sounding

canine experiments would continue at this facility and a new, larger

space nearby. Kent introduced me to Brian Wowk, a pale, portly

young Canadian Ph.D. who was coming on board to investigate how

to deal with the problem of ice crystals rupturing cell tissue. I also

met Mike Darwin, 43, an uncredentialed researcher, lacking so much

as a college degree, who was studying the effects of ischemia - the

cutoff of blood flow - on the brains of dogs. Darwin was a

prematurely white-haired man with tense features and a crisp

speaking style. Kent handed me off to him for a tour of the main lab,

and Darwin showed me around a lair that looked like a veterinarian's

surgical theater. He wasn't so smiley; he was visibly unhappy with

my presence.

"I'm anti-media," he said grimly.

It's hard to blame him. Cryonics has been a public laughing stock

for decades, and it seems that every few years some scandal or

pathetic episode pops up to remind journalists to poke fun at it.

The idea apparently was first conceived by a man named Robert

Ettinger, in a 1962 book called The Prospect of Immortality: The

Revival and Rejuvenation of Frozen Bodies. And while the freezing

part of that title has proved simple enough, thawing and revival still

elude discovery. There are currently a handful of companies in the

U.S. that will freeze you, but there aren't many takers. (Contrary to

popular myth, Walt Disney did not choose to be frozen, though Dick

Clair, a writer for "The Carol Burnett Show," did.) Alcor - one of

the best-known outfits, and one that Kent and Darwin were affiliated

with for years before splitting off on their own - had 33 customers

on ice as of early 1997: 13 bodies and 20 "neuros," or heads without

bodies. (Many cryonics buffs believe that science will one day be

able to grow a new body to match a preserved head.) The full-body

freezing process, simplified, works like so: After you die,

technicians pump out your blood and replace it with anti-freeze. The

body or head is wrapped in protective materials and suspended in a

tank of liquid nitrogen.

Therefore, what "cryonics" really entails is a limbo world of cold

storage and black comedy. Kent has been an active player on this

stage. He became a fringe superstar after the 1987 death of his

mother, Dora Kent, who had signed up with Alcor as a "neuro." The

news media reported that Dora was beheaded and prepared for

freezing before the proper official arrived to declare her legally

dead. Kent has always denied this, but the allegation touched off a

lengthy, highly publicized investigation that featured gruesome

sideshows. Dora's head and (mysteriously) her hands had been

removed by Alcor's technicians, among them Mike Darwin, and the

Riverside County Coroner's office labeled the case a homicide after

an autopsy revealed a lethal amount of barbiturates in Dora's brain.

The Alcor people said the drugs were administered post-death to

preserve the gray matter for its future rethawing, and though the

controversy surged for a while, in the end no charges were filed.

Darwin is media shy, in part, because he's been caught up in such

fiascoes, but also because he fears for his life if the animal-rights

people know where to find his lab. The rightsniks, no doubt, would

not be pleased with his antics: the research protocol he described to

me was the stuff of a nightmare. It involved stopping a dog's heart

for 15 minutes or more, trying to learn which drugs (or

combinations) would help lessen the effects of ischemia in the dog's


The application to cryonics? Well, just this. When you die, the

blood flow to your brain is cut off, causing neurological damage.

The cryo-buffs would like to come up with a drug soup that would

be administered to a dead "patient," preserving the brain as fully as


On behalf of this questionable goal, many dogs were being

"sacrificed" by Darwin, at a rate of one every two weeks.

"It's a brutal thing," he said, looking anguished. "The work we do

here is punishing, for us and for the animals. We're very good at

pain management, but if somebody slit me up both sides of the groin

and put all kinds of instruments in me, and killed me for 15 minutes,

and then reperfused me and put me on a ventilator for a day, I don't

think I'd be feeling too hot, no matter what you gave me."

Uh huh. Call me an old sentimentalist, Mike, but I'd say it's more

punishing for the animals.

Such episodes give "suspended animation" a ghoulish air that

strikes many people as highly unamusing. Should dogs really die so

that obsessive men can fantasize about living longer?

Darwin and Kent made no apologies, and for both men, there was

an obvious desperation in the hurry-up nature of this research.

Neither looked like he was cheating death with dietary supplements.

"It's not an optimal situation," acknowledged Kent, who wears a

metal bracelet on his wrist that tells physicians and paramedics to

whistle in the freezer boys if he's found dead. "I coined the phrase:

'Being frozen is the second-worst thing that can happen to you.' But

whether the odds are high or low that I can be revived, I don't care.

I just want to make the odds better."

At the end of my visit, Kent introduced me to Dr. Stephen R.

Spindler, a professor in the department of biochemistry at the

University of California at Riverside. Spindler was hired to help

direct the Life Span Project's rodent research on the effects of

supplements. He's also an old hand at researching calorie restriction,

which for decades has been known to extend the life of lab mice.

(The mystery is how.) A dapper, compact man who practices a mild

calorie-restriction regimen himself, Spindler offered to show me his

lab at Riverside, so I followed him over.

En route, I sorted my thoughts on all this stuff. Larry and Herb

and Durk and Sandy seemed harmless enough, but obviously, I had

to be against the dog-slaying. Calorie restriction seemed O.K., but I

did have to wonder if that would be a desirable way to "live" just to

tack on a few more years. A typical platoon of calorie-restricted

mice eat about 40 percent less than their unrestricted counterparts.

Put in terms I could understand, that comes out to about 100 percent

fewer trips to New Orleans. The idea of living life as an extended

pursed-lip tightrope act seemed too rational to be much fun.

Put another way, it seemed too "Houyhnhnm." Say what you will

about the superior moral virtues of the horse people in Gulliver's

Travels, but admit this: they were awfully boring. Little wonder that

no one mourned when they died. They probably couldn't tell the

difference. The Yahoos weren't proper role models, either - they

were too animalistic, nasty, and ignorant - but at least they knew how

to have a good time, even if their primary amusements were

howling, fornicating, and defecating.

Inside his lab, Spindler introduced me to his wife and lab pardner,

Patti Mote, a kindly woman who loaned me a white coat. We walked

upstairs to a small room where the racks of mice are kept. Against

one wall was a rack of individually caged, calorie-restricted mice;

against the other, the so-called "ad libs," furry fatties who could eat

whatever and whenever they wanted. With dramatic consistency, I

was told, the fatties were unhealthier and died sooner. I leaned in to

study them closely. They looked sluggish, lazy, and swollen, like

little fur-covered sausages with hangovers. By contrast the dieters

were alert, pert, and active. Even though I'm a naturally too-skinny

guy myself, I felt no kinship bond with the fit-and-slim mice, who

struck me as too smug and Houyhnhnm-like to love. I liked the

fatties. The Yahoos.

The Spindlers grabbed a Houyhnhnm mouse and a Yahoo mouse

and showed me "the dowel test," a measure of mouse dexterity. They

laid a long wooden dowel over a dry sink, creating a sort of Dowel

Bridge over Sink Canyon. They put a dieter on the dowel and slowly

turned it. It kept its balance, no problem. Then they put a Yahoo

through the same paces. The hapless tub clutched and blobbed and

quickly fell. But ... was I imagining it? He seemed to be smiling as he


"He fell off without me even rolling the dowel," Spindler observed


Good for him. As far as I was concerned, that made him a

champion. His sloppy-but-heroic effort brought to mind Alexis

Zorba, the "life force"-y character created by Nikos Kazantzakis in

Zorba the Greek. At one point, describing his vision of the afterlife,

Zorba imagines God as a big, strong, hard-partying guy who greets

newly arrived souls with a bucket of water and a sponge. At heaven's

gate, you cower before him and confess your sins until he's heard


"Flap! Slap! a wipe of the sponge, and he washes out all the sins,"

says Zorba. "'Away with you, clear out, run off to Paradise!' he says

to the soul."

The "scolding" points at the rustic-but-elegant truth of Zorba's

theology: God is proud of you for arriving a little stained and sinful.

Blessed are those who live a little.

My last stop in California was with Max More and his wife Natasha

Vita More, who live in a perky white-walled apartment in Marina

del Rey. "More" is an assumed name that they adopted in keeping

with a futuristic philosophy that guides their lives. It's called

Extropianism - as in, "away from entropy" - and its 5,000 or so

adherents long for a day when technology, in various ways, will

carry people past the limits of the human body.

On a brilliant southern California Sunday morning, the Mores told

me about the final days of Timothy Leary, who, before his death in

early 1996, had signed up for cryonic treatment with an outfit Mike

Darwin performed technical work for, CryoCare. Freezing Leary

would have been a notable coup, but he backed out, apparently citing

his family's wishes that he not turn his death into a sideshow.

The Mores weren't there, but they didn't find this a happy

conclusion. In an issue of Extropy, a magazine Max edited, Max and

Natasha both lamented Leary's decision as a cop-out, a capitulation to

"deathist" thinking.

That's a novel way of looking at it - death as a bad lifestyle choice

- but it was no joke to the Mores. They seemed sincerely stricken.

"Tim was not a long-range planner," Natasha said sadly.

"He was surrounded by people who were hostile to cryonics, who

were very much into reincarnation and Buddhism, things like that,"

Max added. "Plus, a close confidante of his, John Perry Barlow, had

this idea that -"

"That death was to be honored."

"That you were to die with dignity and grace and that death is this

wonderful and natural thing. I think Barlow got Leary to see himself

as a new Socrates, taking his hemlock."

And what was Barlow trying to prove?

"That dying," said Max, "is still an acceptable choice."

Read reviews of Apocalypse Pretty Soon and purchase the book, at Amazon.Com, via this direct link.


Apocalypse Pretty Soon

While you're there, be sure to say hello to "Quivering Casey," the

A.P.S. staff expert on longevity research!

PowerSurge Publishing

The official home page of Herb Bowie, the ever-optimistic author

of Why Die?: A Beginner's Guide to Living Forever. Here, you can

also join "The Immortality Book Club."

Walford, the staff M.D. inside the Biosphere 2 bubble, is a

longtime life-extension researcher, focusing on calorie restriction.

Alcor Life Extension Foundation

Major players in "cryonics," or body freezing in hopes of future


World Transhumanist Association

Dedicated to overcoming the limits of the human body via


The Life Extension Foundaton

World's largest purveyor of life-extension supplements (or so they


Extropy Institute

Excellent site run by Max More and Natasha Vita More, prominent

figures in the "extropian" movement, a science-is-best lifestyle with a

major life-extensionl thrust.


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