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Pick of the day: Robert C. W. Ettinger's quest for immortality

In the Jan. 25 issue of the New Yorker (subscription required), Jill Lepore serves up a great read with her profile of Robert C.W. Ettinger, a founder of the cryonics movement. At 91, Ettinger is getting closer to realizing his dream of having the blood drained from his corpse, his arteries pumped with anti-freeze, and being stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen inside a warehouse in Clinton Township, Michigan.

Ettinger is the ultimate optimist. Even though, as Lepore puts it, the consensus among "credentialled laboratory scientists who conduct peer-reviewed experiments having to do with the storage of organic tissue at very low tempuratures" is that "when you try to defrost a frozen corpse you get mush," Ettinger holds out hope that eventually someone will figure out how to do it and will also have the courtesy to thaw him and throw some cold water on his face. Once "reanimated," he will be rejoined by his first and second wife, his mother, and the other 92 denizens of the Cryonics Institute.

What is a writer to do when her subject's lifelong obsession is the stuff of camp science fiction? Lepore, who is also an American history professor at Harvard, strikes just the right tone, noting the often hilarious absurdities of Ettinger's quest without lapsing into ridicule, starting with her opening description of him:

"Robert C.W. Ettinger, who thinks death is for chumps, drives a rusty Chevy Lumina with a bumper sticker on the rear that reads, 'Choose Life!'...His face is splotched, his goatee grizzled, his gray hair wispy and unkempt. He leans on a worn wooden cane and wears a thick orthopedic shoe on his left foot...Actuarially, chances are good that he'll be dying soon...There are only three ways to go when you die. You can be buried, burned or frozen. If there is no God, Ettinger says, your only chance at an afterlife is Option 3."

It would be easy to dismiss Ettinger as just a crack pot but his advanced age lends the tale a bit of poignancy. Lepore describes sitting down with Ettinger and paging through a stack of family photo albums starting with Ettinger's baby pictures. Along the way, Ettinger is reminded of all of those who were once close to him who are now gone, most of whom he holds no hope of reuniting with. He refers to those who refused to be frozen as "lost."

After all, what is the point of immortality, anyway, if you can't share it with the ones you love?

By Annys Shin  | January 25, 2010; 8:16 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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