Swing batter, batter, batter. (Or, bring me the head of Ted Williams.)
Our friends at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation - the cryonics folks - are in the news. This time it's because a former (and short-term) COO, Larry Johnson has written a book, Frozen, that alleges that some rather gruesome practices that were carried out by Alcor. The most titillating detail - the one that's taking Johnson out of hiding in a safehouse long enough to appear on Nightline this Tuesday - is the claim that a technician at Alcor took some swings at Ted Williams head (which was propped up on an empty tuna can at the time) with a monkey wrench. (Colonel Mustard did it on the tuna can with a monkey wrench.)
The book, out Tuesday from Vanguard Press, tells how Williams' corpse became "Alcorian A-1949" at the facility, where bodies are kept suspended in liquid nitrogen in case future generations learn how to revive them.
Johnson writes that in July 2002, shortly after the Red Sox slugger died at age 83, technicians with no medical certification gleefully photographed and used crude equipment to decapitate the majors' last .400 hitter.
Williams' severed head was then frozen, and even used for batting practice by a technician trying to dislodge it from a tuna fish can. (Source, not surprisingly: NY Daily News. Not only is it their kind of story, but they get to take a swipe at the Red Sox in the process. Not so much fun if the head had been Joe DiMaggio's or Lou Gehrig's.)
Needless to say, Alcor's denying it.
But if it is true, I'm sure that Ted wouldn't be all that pleased, especially given that this wasn't anything like an authentic batting practice, in which a ball is hurled at the batter at a rapid clip. Instead, this sorry-ass spectacle was a lot closer to tee-ball, which nobody over the age of 7 plays. I can just hear Ted muttering "chickenshit."
For those who don't follow either baseball or cryonics, Ted Williams - a.k.a., the Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame, The Kid - was a Red Sox star who chose to have his brain preserved in hopes of making a career comeback at some point. Cryogenics was Ted's choice, perhaps because it isn't a flash-freeze process, which could lead to not so splendid splintering, but is a more complex preservation method that's more fracture-proof.
Since I'm always interested in off-beat businesses, I paid a virtual visit to Alcor (an Arizona non-profit, but a business nonetheless) to brush up on my admittedly scant knowledge of cryonics.
First off, I want to set a couple things straight.
One, those aren't just bodies and disembodied heads lying around Alcor in a big chill. They're patients. That's because, why they are "legally dead," they're "biologically alive, depending on how rapidly procedures are begun after the heart stops."
As an aside, this legally-dead-biologically-alive stuff reminds me of an all-hands meeting held at Genuity the day after a major lay-off. When asked about whether everyone who was losing their job had been told, our president said "as far as I'm aware there have no lay-offs." A couple of hour later, an e-mail was sent out in which, quite preposterously, he informed us that because everyone who was laid off was still on severance, he considered them employees in spirit.
Anyway, the whole Ted-head incident got me thinking about why you'd save your head, rather than just your brain. Well, what's a web-site without an FAQ, and Alcor's anticipated this question:
Cryopreservation that is focused on doing the best possible job to preserve the human brain is called "neuro-preservation." The brain is a fragile organ that cannot be removed from the skull without injury, so it is left within the skull during preservation and storage for good ethical and scientific reasons. This gives rise to the mistaken impression that Alcor preserves "heads". It is more accurate to say that Alcor preserves brains in the least injurious way possible.
This clears things up. I get that Alcor believes that they'll be able to recreate a body for you, and I was truly wondering why someone would want to save their 83 year old head just to have it placed on a completely new body. I'm quite sure that no one would sign up to recreate their body as it was at 83 years of age - and who wants their wrinkly, droopy old 83 year old face on a lithe and limber 23 year old body?
Most Alcor members (the pre-patients) sign up for the neuro, not full bore, full body preservo. (Full body is $150K, neuro is $80K.)
By the way, you want to act fast with cryonics, since biological death has a way of creeping up on you pretty quickly once that old legal death thing happens. So Alcor recommends that, as the time nears, members "relocate to cooperative hospice care near Alcor."
Well, you'd think with all the Sun City and other retirees in Arizona that the place would be a gold mine, but as of September 30, Alcor has 905 members and 88 "patients" - this is after over 30 years. Not exactly Facebook rates of adoption.
Alcor is, of course, trying to increase their patient count:
You can increase your chances of seeing your current friends and family in the future by interesting them in cryonics or by making friends within the cryonics community.
Forget that they haven't quite perfected the memory and personality preservation technique, so you might not be coming back as you, anyway. Having so few members and patients quite naturally raises the question of what happens if they fold? Not to worry: they've got a trust set up and while the couple of million it's got in it won't last forever, it's a start.
More problematic, from Alcor's point of view is:
...the risk of socio-economic disruption, and the fact that the general public does not currently regard cryonics patients as people worthy of protection.
I've got to agree with them here. I can't imagine any mother's son (or daughter) who'd want to die defending Ted Williams' head.
And I don't think Ted - a Marine fighter pilot in WWII and Korea - would find it all that noble, either. Remember the Alamo! Remember the Maine! Remember Pearl Harbor! Remember Alcor Life Extension Foundation!
There is no doubt in my still legally and biologically alive mind that there will come a day when what we now might think of as mad science will pan out.
The question, of course, is what happens to our fragile planet when death isn't forever, or if nobody dies? Will the "haves" systematically get rid of the "have nots" to make sure there's room and resource for them to take up space indefinitely? Will we be space colonizers? Man on the moon for good? Next stop Mars? Maybe e.e. cummings had it right: Listen, there's a hell of a good universe next door; let's go.
In the meantime, for us fortunate baseball fans, the post-season is on, and "we" are still playing ball. So swing batter, batter, batter - just not at Ted Williams head, please.