Might our grandchildren watch Hall of Fame baseball player Ted Williams hit .400 again like our grandparents did back in 1941? Don't laugh, it might happen. How? Through the amazing, but obviously still unproven, science of cryonics.
Cryonics is basically the science of turning us humans into popsicles upon our death with the hope of reviving us in the future and restoring us to our former, healthy selves again. Just after death, "patients" who elect to take a shot at immortality are stored in a chamber of liquid nitrogen to prevent further physical decay. The hope is that one day nanotechnology will have progressed to the point that major cell damage could be repaired and that life could be restored.
A major tussle over cryonic freezing has erupted between Ted Williams' children after one of them announced that his father's body would be frozen and stored at a cryonic facility in Arizona. From current news reports it remains unclear whether this was Mr. Williams' dying wish. One of Mr. Williams' daughters from a previous marriage is accusing her younger step-brother of doing this merely to profit from the future sale of DNA samples from baseball's greatest all-time hitter. If that is true, it raises some troubling ethical and legal questions about profiteering from the dead without their permission beforehand.
But let's assume for the sake of argument that Mr. Williams really did want to take a shot at immortality by having himself frozen today with the hope of being reanimated in the future. Further assume he not only made this wish explicit in a will, but that he also created a trust fund to pay for the expenses associated with his freezing and potential future re-awakening. Is this ethical, and should it be legal? After all, since when do the dead have rights?
How you answer that question will depend upon your view of life, law, religion, and so on. There will be those who say cryonics is obscene, immoral or "against God's way." Yet, medical science has progressed to the point today that the dead are brought back to life all the time. People routinely die on the operating table only to be brought back to life minutes later through ingenious medical technology that wasn't feasible just a few decades ago. Is that wrong? What if medical science progresses to the point that instead of being brought back to life a few minutes after you died that you could be brought back a few hours later? How about a few days?
But that's "too long" and "their time has come" to pass on, would be a common response you might expect to hear. Says who? What's a long enough lifespan? While people were happy to live 50 years just a century ago, today most of us hope and expect to live to see 80. Is that "too long?" No one outside of a few crackpots would think so. Most people believe that everything should be done to enhance and extend the life of the human species. So if we could revive and restore a human life a few minutes, hours, days, months, years, or even decades later, why not do so?
Many scientists are already claiming that cryonics is a bunch of hokum and that people like Ted Williams and his family are being taken for a ride by swindlers who hold out the quixotic hope of eternal life. But how many scientists living just a century ago could have imagined our world today of supersonic travel, artificial hearts, in vitro fertilization, computers that fit on a grain of sand, and the beginning of cloning? Sci-fi writer H.G. Wells might be the only guy who could have (and in some ways did) envision portions of our modern world.
And speaking of H.G. Wells and sci-fi writers in general, perhaps they are the group we should be looking to for some answers about potential ways to deal with this issue. For instance, in his wonderful recent book "The First Immortal," James L. Halperin, grapples with the legal and ethical ramifications of cryonics and suggests that the lawmakers and jurists will be forced to create a legal framework to accommodate it.
While you might not agree with everything Halperin or other cyronics supporters predict, you can't deny the fact that the world which they envision may be around the corner and we should start planning for it today.
So, will our grandchildren see Ted Williams hit .400 again in the future? I don't think so. Not because he won't be re-animated at some point in the future and restored to his former super-hitter self, but because baseball probably won't exist if players keep striking like they're about to do again this year.
I hope Ted's dreaming about soccer right now.