Since humans have been living, we’ve also been dying—best case scenario: after eight or nine decades and plenty of good times. But we’re not wholly content with that. Never have been, probably never will be.
In fact, working on how not to die is one of the most human things about us. It’s occupied the minds of everyone from ancient Chinese emperors and medieval European alchemists to today’s Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They think it’s within sight and completely different from how this quest was approached in the past. Or is it?
Hosts: Alexis Pedrick and Elisabeth Berry Drago
Senior Producer: Mariel Carr
Producer: Rigoberto Hernandez
Audio Engineer: Jonathan Pfeffer
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Immortality Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever
The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever
Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever
Experiments that Hint at Longer Lives
Lisa Berry Drago: The NBC sitcom, The Good Place, is a smart, funny take on the afterlife. Maybe you’ve seen it? Ted Danson plays Michael, an a mortal being in charge of the humans who show up in the great beyond. Back in 2017, they did an episode called Existential Crisis where one of those humans tries to teach him about mortality. Of course, since he’s immortal, Michael becomes paralyzed with anxiety when he fully grasps the concept of death.
Michael: Can’t stop moving. If I stop moving, I’ll start thinking. And if I start thinking, I’ll start thinking about things I don’t want to think about like death. Oops. I’m thinking about it now. Um, yep. Thinking about death again.
Lisa Berry Drago: He tries to deal with this the way you might manage a midlife crisis. Flashy suits, a fancy sports car, terrible tattoos. It’s not great. And then one of those humans, Eleanor, breaks it down for him.
Eleanor: I don’t know if what I’m gonna say is gonna hurt or help, but screw it. Do you know what’s really happening right now? You’re learning what it’s like to be human. All humans are aware of death. So, we’re all a little bit sad all the time. That’s just the deal.
Michael: Sounds like a crappy deal.
Eleanor: Well, yeah. It is. But we don’t get offered any other ones.
Alexis Pedrick: If what she said sounded familiar to you or made sense, then congratulations. You’re just a plain, old mortal being.
Lisa Berry Drago: But if you’re not, let us know. We have so many questions [laughs].
Alexis Pedrick: Since humans have been living, we’ve also been dying. Best case scenario, after eight or nine decades and plenty of good times, death is just a fact of life. It’s just the deal, as Eleanor said. But the part she left out or maybe glossed over is that we’re not wholly content with that. Never have been, probably never will be. I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago. And this is Distillations.
Alexis Pedrick: Today we’re talking about dying. Or rather, the how not to die, if we can help it.
Lisa Berry Drago: Like we said, even though death is a part of human life, we’ve never been 100% happy to accept it. In fact, working on how not to die is one of the most human things about us. It’s occupied the minds of everyone from ancient Chinese emperors to medieval European alchemists to now Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.
Chip Walter: You have this place called Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley has over the last, you know, almost 50 years now gone about the business of solving really difficult engineering problems. Uh, that did two things. One, it showed that you really could disrupt, uh, technology in ways that, you know, we, we hadn’t previously. The other thing is it created enormous amount of wealth. So, you had people that after a certain point had made so much money and solved so many problems, that I think they got to the point where they thought, “Well, we can solve this one,” you know? Um, I mean, this is a big problem. 150,000 people a day die from age-related diseases.
Alexis Pedrick: That’s Chip Walter, a science journalist who wrote the book, Immortality, Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions, and the Quest to Live Forever. We’ve upgraded… Oh, sorry for the pun… Our search for immortality with elite scientists, tech servants and engineers.
Lisa Berry Drago: We might still be thinking about the same questions. What if we didn’t have to settle for an inevitable end? Or at least not so soon? But according to this group, immortality might be actually within sight.
Alexis Pedrick: That’s right. This time we’re not driven by all those old fashioned beliefs and mysticism. We’re looking at this problem with clear eyes and pragmatism. It’s completely different from how we approached it in the past. Or is it?
Chapter one. The quest begins.
Lisa Berry Drago: Let’s start at the beginning. Well, not the very beginning. [laughs] There are so many examples of people striving for eternal youth or immortality that we can’t possibly fit them into one episode. But to sum it up very simply, we’ll borrow the words of writer Adam Leith Gollner, “We’ve tried elixirs, hormones, prayers pills, spells, and stem cells.”
Alexis Pedrick: We’ve also tried eating mummies, buzzard stones, and pulverized boar penises, just to give you a few examples of the breadth of this pursuit. But for the purposes of this story, we’re focusing on two attempts that have their roots in alchemy. The first in ancient China, and the second in medieval Europe.
Lisa Berry Drago: In ancient China, some folks believed that the souls of the dead wound up in a place called the Yellow Springs, a shadowy underworld below the Earth’s surface. But a belief emerged that some lucky, virtuous people didn’t have to retreat below ground. They grew wings and transformed into eternal beings. Something between body and spirit.
Alexis Pedrick: As the centuries went on, the idea of an immortal soul gave way to a belief in the possibility of actual bodily immortality. And this belief was bolstered by Taoism, a philosophy and religion that emerged around the fourth century.
Lisa Berry Drago: There were two branches of Taoism. One tended towards the mystical and transcendent. It encouraged being okay with dying. The other proposed that a combination of physical exercise, diet and herbal medicine could extend physical life indefinitely.
Alexis Pedrick: That’s right. Bodily immortality could be yours if you could get the right elixir. And that’s where alchemy comes in. It became the main focus of this branch and was taken very seriously by a long string of emperors. Alchemists sprung up offering various elixirs. It was a huge market. Adam Leith Gollner writes that it wasn’t hard to find buyers for things like, “The subtle potion of the Flying Springs that brings one to the land of deathlessness, where the feathered ones are.”
Lisa Berry Drago: As alluring as this potion and others like it sounded, they often did the opposite of what they promised, in part because of their ingredients. They included things like mercury. Emperor after emperor died prematurely after being poisoned by concoctions intended for immortality.
Alexis Pedrick: “Now, hold on,” you might be saying. “Why are so many emperors dying? Couldn’t someone else test it? Who wouldn’t want an elixir of never ending life?”
Lisa Berry Drago: Well, yeah. Everyone wanted it [laughs], but emperors were considered exceptional. They had an elevated role in society, so if anyone was going to be physically extended indefinitely, it was going to be them. And thus, we have one of the reasons why we humans have pursued immortality. Keeping an important person, someone we might even consider divine, alive.
Alexis Pedrick: So committed were we to this idea working that we painted the mania and euphoria that accompanied the deaths from these elixirs as part of the process. Just one step on the path towards immortality. But that was one practice. Surely, if we travel forward in time to a different location, we’ll see something different. Right?
Lisa Berry Drago: Here we are centuries later in medieval England with Roger Bacon. Born around 1220, Bacon was a Franciscan friar and also a- an alchemist. And he had a problem, you see. We humans were dying way too soon and it was cutting into our spiritual potential.
Meagan Allen: The problem is we’re just not living as long as we should be living. So, Bacon says… And again, this is not unique to Bacon. This goes back to as early as Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews. You know, the first century AD he talks about how human life has become significantly shortened.
Lisa Berry Drago: That’s Meagan Allen, a research fellow at the Science History Institute. She’s writing her dissertation on how Bacon used medical alchemy to try and prolong life.
Meagan Allen: So, if you read the Old Testament, there are stories of people like Noah and Methuselah and Enoch, and they’re living for several 100 years. And this is the natural lifespan of humans. And over time, people have become stupid, and they’ve started to sin, and the sins have compounded. And the more people sin, the less they understand about nature and about how to take care of their bodies. And so, with each generation, life has been shortened. And now, Bacon says, we’re at the point where we live maybe 70 or 80 years, but they’re 70 and 80 years of toil and hard work and disease and decay. This isn’t normal. We’re not meant to be like this.
Alexis Pedrick: This idea that there was a more noble version of us that used to live for a long time, it’s even ingrained in our pop culture. If you’ve watched the extended edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, you’re familiar. One of the human characters, Aragorn, is a very good looking 87. When he’s crowned king, his reign lasts 122 years, and he ends up living until he’s 210.
Lisa Berry Drago: And no, it was not his exercise regimen. He is mortal, but the direct descendant of kings who were granted long life because of their willingness to stand against the Dark Lord, Morgoth. Longevity for royalty strikes again.
Alexis Pedrick: Longevity for someone powerful and godlike is not just for Chinese emperors or high fantasy movies. As far as Bacon was concerned, it should also be for the Pope.
Meagan Allen: Bacon wants Christianity to be united. And he thinks that the current pope that he’s writing to, Pope Clement IV, is going to be this great uniter of Christianity. And in order for Clement to do that, Clement has to stay alive. And so, he wants Clement to live a long time. He wants to break the cycle of Popes dying within five years after their election. So, it’s… Y- Yeah, it’s a specific person that he wants to stay alive, but it’s for the good of all of Christianity.
Lisa Berry Drago: You can see the crux of Bacon’s problems. Though they tried to rationalize it, “Oh, God just really wanted to have the truly holy with Him, so he, he took the popes too soon.” But popes dying after five years in the Middle Ages was beginning to seem like a curse. Now, it could be because by the time one gets to be pope, they’re already pretty old and, you know, accomplished. But either way, Bacon wasn’t happy about it.
Alexis Pedrick: Like with the Chinese emperors, it pays to keep the context in mind. In the period Bacon lived, the church was everything in Europe. Life was overwhelmingly religious. And aside from certain heretical groups, there wasn’t much deviation from Christian beliefs.
Lisa Berry Drago: And to be fair to Bacon, he was also truly concerned that human beings in general were not living up to their spiritual potential. Which is a nice way of saying that he worried that the stupider humans became, then the shorter they lived, and the shorter they lived, the less holy knowledge they acquired.
Meagan Allen: So, there’s this idea that knowledge was given by God to Adam and his sons, and this is all knowledge. So, the, the first men knew all things. But as time has gone on and people have sinned and gotten stupider, they have lost this knowledge. And now, it’s to the point where y- you’re not… Nobody’s living long enough to reclaim this knowledge. And so, if we can extend human life, we have a chance to gain more knowledge that we’ve lost.
Lisa Berry Drago: And here’s an important clarification. Roger Bacon was not trying to make people live forever. Just for a very, very long time.
Meagan Allen: This is a really, really important point. Not only does no one want to make a medicine that will make people immortal, they actually don’t even think it’s possible. And to suggest that it is possible would be incredibly blasphemous.
Alexis Pedrick: Blasphemous does not even seem to be a big enough word for how wrong Bacon would have believed this was.
Meagan Allen: That is heterodox in the extreme. It’s overriding the will of God who ordained that we would all die because of Adam’s sin. And it also says… It implies that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross isn’t necessary for humans to live forever. So, the only way to achieve immortality is through God through Jesus, and it will only happen after the resurrection.
Lisa Berry Drago: So, how did he do it? How did he plan to give the Pope this extremely extended lifespan? Well, alchemy of course. By the time Bacon came along, alchemy was a well established set of ideas around the transformation and transmutation of materials. It developed into a means of understanding the natural world and learning how to recreate nature’s processes. That included things like changing lead into gold, but also things like medicine and healing.
Alexis Pedrick: In fact, this process of transformation or transmutation was often described as healing metals. So, if you gave a cheap metal some medicine, you could treat it and transform it from something common or base into something more noble like silver or gold.
Meagan Allen: And Bacon sees this idea of a medicine for metals and he runs with it. And he says, “If we can use alchemy to create a medicine for metals, why can’t we use alchemy to create a medicine for humans?”
Alexis Pedrick: Gold was the purest metal. It was supposedly impervious to rust or decay, and Bacon thought if gold could be incorruptible, why couldn’t people be?
Meagan Allen: And so, Bacon says, “Well, are there other things that are incorruptible? And what makes something incorruptible?”
Lisa Berry Drago: One theory was that’s gold’s perfection came from having a perfectly balanced amount of the four elements that make up the world: air, water, earth and fire.
Meagan Allen: So, he thinks that corruption of all material comes when one element in a mixture is too strong and dominates the others and breaks them down and causes corruption. But because gold has the elements in a perfect proportion, they can’t act on each other, and so there’s no corruption. So, this idea of an incorruptible body is central to Bacon’s understanding of how human life can be prolonged.
Lisa Berry Drago: Bacon’s idea was to make people as much like gold as possible, by taking their unbalanced bodies and balancing their elements.
Meagan Allen: And so, if you give it a medicine that gets it closer to an equal proportion, then the body is less corruptible, so you- you’re are able to live longer, you’re stronger, healthier, smarter, et cetera.
Lisa Berry Drago: Bacon’s actual methodology for prolonging life came in the form of alchemical medicines. His favorite was called the gloria inaestimabilis. The inestimable glory. This was not his own creation, but something he read about in an Arabic alchemical text, The Secret of Secrets. Nerdy side note here, the Secret of Secrets was actually a translation. It was thought to be an ancient book of wisdom penned by Aristotle, for his student, Alexander the Great.
Alexis Pedrick: The gloria inaestimabilis was supposed to do it all.
Meagan Allen: It will cure all infirmities. It can clarify the mind. It can make a person less liable to sin. It can make them smarter. It will extend human life.
Alexis Pedrick: And what was the recipe, you ask? A bunch of ingredients that fermented for several months before being exposed to the, “Beneficial stellar rays.” Or to use a phrase we’re probably all more familiar with: starlight.
Meagan Allen: And then, it’s ingested, and once ingested, it provides the miraculous powers that I described. Most notably, prolonging life.
Lisa Berry Drago: Okay. So, does it work? [laughs].
Meagan Allen: Well, [laughs], we would say no. But Bacon says yes. And Bacon actually claims to have seen it in action. He says there’s a, a German who lived in captivity for 500 years after taking a medicine meant for a king. And he says there are letters in p-… In the Pope’s possession that document this man’s incredible lifespan. And his favorite is the story of a man named Artephius who created a medicine similar to the gloria inaestimabilis and lived for over 1000 years.
Lisa Berry Drago: So, did someone actually live to be 1000? Uh, there’s no proof, but we’re guessing that [laughs]. Still, the belief that it was possible was powerful, and it kept Bacon going on his quest. Bacon himself only lives to around 80, which is nothing to sneeze at. But shockingly, no one he treated with his chemical medicine lived anywhere close to Noah or Methuselah. We didn’t figure out how to get people to live hundreds of years in the 13th century, right?
Meagan Allen: No, we did not, unfortunately. I would just interview Bacon. It’d make my dissertation easier [laughs].
Alexis Pedrick: Even though he lived a regular long lifespan and never gave the Pope his extended life, Bacon never stopped doubting it was possible. Of course, if we fast forward to today, we’ll surely find that our obsession with immortality would never be grounded in something like trying to keep a powerful person with huge societal influence alive.
Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter Two. The magic bullet.
ABC News: Steve Jobs, the visionary founder and leader of Apple computer, has died at the age of 56. A giant in business, technology and entertainment, Steve Jobs had been battling pancreatic cancer for eight years. His place in history was assured when he helped invent the personal computer, but that was only the beginning.
Chip Walter: Here’s a guy that had everything. He was t-… On top of the world. And then, this disease hits him, and you go, “Wow, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter how smart you are, it doesn’t matter how successful you are, if your body is gonna bring you down, it’s gonna bring you down.”
Alexis Pedrick: Chip Walter is a science journalist we talked to you in the beginning of this story. He points to Steve Jobs’ death as a turning point in the battle against death.
Chip Walter: It’s just one more example of how powerful death is and how, you know, easily, a body can unravel. Um, so I guess in, in that sense, I think for anybody that is one of those people… You know, is an Elon Musk or, you know, an… Or, you know, an- any of those bigger than life characters, you know, someone that just goes, “Well, you know, if you’re going to solve a problem, it probably should be this one,” you know? The other ones kinda pale by comparison, you know? It’s nice to, it’s nice to create us an iPhone, change the world, but if you solved aging, that would be way bigger.
Lisa Berry Drago: So, a group of Silicon Valley’s elite scientists, tech savants, and entrepreneurs got together and started working on this, uh, problem. The idea was to throw money, time and brainpower at the same issue that ancient Chinese alchemists and Roger Bacon couldn’t solve: aging and death.
Alexis Pedrick: Now Silicon Valley is known for introducing us to brand new innovations. A phone that’s actually a computer that fits in your pocket. Nuclear magnetic resonance. Video games. Satellite technology. And now, not dying.
Cynthia Kenyon: Have you ever wanted to stay young a little longer and put off aging? This is a dream of the ages. But scientists have for a long time thought this was just never going to be possible. They thought, you know, you just wear out. There’s nothing you can do about it, kind of like an old shoe. But if we could, you know, have a, a therapeutic or pill to take, maybe we would have a way of combating lots of different age-related diseases all at once. So, I’m, I’m really optimistic and I think that it won’t be too long, I hope, before this, um, age old dream begins to come true.
Lisa Berry Drago: That was Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist and biogerontologist. Gerontology, by the way, is the scientific study of aging. And don’t worry, we’re coming back to that.
Alexis Pedrick: First, it’s important to understand why this new group says this time immortality is within sight. It’s one of the big questions, things that are usually relegated to philosophy or psychology or religion. That’s what Chip’s interested in.
Chip Walter: But what I wanted to do was tackle some of these questions and really look at the hard science. And I began to feel that there might be a time that we were arriving at in human history when we could actually solve one of the great mysteries that human beings have always grappled with, and that is death.
Lisa Berry Drago: At first, there wasn’t much indication that science could actually tackle this. But one could argue that trying to find a cure for cancer or treat Alzheimer’s is undoubtedly a benefit of this attempt to prolong life or at least the quality of life.
Chip Walter: And then a company called Calico was announced. Then I thought, “Ah, now we’re onto something.” Because, first of all, Google was involved, and, and they put up, along with another company called AbbVie, which is a pharmaceutical company, an initial investment of a billion and a half dollars. So I thought, “Okay, now we’ve got some serious players. This is serious science.”
Alexis Pedrick: We talked about the context for ancient Chinese alchemists and Roger Bacon in medieval England. And should someone stumble upon this podcast in a few 100 years or, you know, live to be 300 and just wanna go back and listen to their favorite show, we thought it was worth providing some context for our modern pursuit.
Chip Walter: You have this place called Silicon Valley, and Silicon Valley has over the last, you know, almost 50 years now gone about the business of solving really difficult engineering problems. That did two things. One, it showed that you really could disrupt technology in ways that, you know, we, we hadn’t previously. The other thing is it created enormous amount of wealth. So, you had people that after a certain point had made so much money and solved so many problems that I think they got to the point where they thought, “Well, we can solve this one,” you know? Uh, I mean, this is a big problem. 150,000 people a day die from age-related diseases.
Lisa Berry Drago: Let’s pause for a second because this idea, “the problem of aging,” has come up more than once. And we have to wonder: is that really our biggest problem? The one most worthy of the best and brightest minds? Have we really solved all [laughs] the other problems? Or is this just a more challenging, bioengineering quandary?
Alexis Pedrick: If so, and it’s not at all clear that this is the case, it makes you think back to Roger Bacon and his wish for more time so we could gain all that holy knowledge. If we had more time, what would we be using it for? Whose lives would we be trying to improve?
Chip Walter: I think, you know, some people in Silicon Valley were like, “Well, uh, I’m having a good time here.” Uh, I think, in general, people probably feel like, “Well, I just want to… Like to keep living longer. I don’t want to get old and decrepit, but I would like to keep living longer. So, why don’t we just tackle this problem? Uh, and, and, uh, throw whatever money we needed to throw at it.”
At the same time, because of the Human Genome Project that Craig Venter was involved with, and because of the history of all the work that was getting done on the genetic level, you know, where you’re really getting down to the molecular level, where you can tackle these kinds of problems, they were making progress. You know, so all the pieces start… Were, were coming together. The money, the science, and the desire.
Alexis Pedrick: It really was coming together. I mean, one of the challenges of solving aging is that no one actually understands it entirely. It’s still a mystery. And the scientists that came together to form Calico were intrigued by this, including the CEO, Art Levinson, a microbiologist and former CEO of the biotech company Genentech.
Chip Walter: I think that they simply saw a problem that was a really difficult problem. And in the case of Art Levinson, for example, I know that it was biology. It was a really interesting biological problem. He wasn’t sure if it was solvable, but he thought, “Well, it’s a real game changer. So let’s, let’s give it a shot. What the heck.”
Lisa Berry Drago: Calico is not the only enterprise working on this aging problem. Craig Venter, the biotechnologist known for his role in the Human Genome Project has a company called Human Longevity Inc. Their approach is a little different. They’re doing things piece by piece. For example, developing precision medicines that can detect diseases extremely early. Calico on the other hand, is looking for that single magic bullet. And some of their hopes are pinned on the work of Cynthia Kenyon, the molecular biologist and biogerontologist we heard from earlier.
Alexis Pedrick: It all comes down to a worm. Ironically, a very short lived one. The animal that Cynthia studied is called C. elegans. It’s a tiny roundworm, no bigger than a common in a sentence on your computer screen.
Lisa Berry Drago: And she chose the C. elegans specifically for their short lifespans. They typically only live for about a month, so you don’t have to wait around for months and months or even years to draw conclusions.
Alexis Pedrick: Another draw was that there had been reports of long-lived mutants among them.
Cynthia Kenyon: So, we started to change genes at random, looking for long-lived animals, and we were very lucky to find that mutations that damage one single gene, called daf-2, doubled the lifespan of the little worm. After a month, the normal worms are all dead. But at that time, most of the mutant worms are still alive, and it isn’t until twice as long that they’re all dead.
Lisa Berry Drago: If you happen to watch her TED talk, you can see her play a movie of this worm and watch their lifespans unfold.
Cynthia Kenyon: And now I wanna show you what they actually look like in this movie here. So, the first thing you’re going to see is the normal worm, when it’s about college student age. A young adult. It’s quite a cute little fellow.
Alexis Pedrick: She also shows you one of the mutant worms for comparison. After about two weeks, the normal worms are old.
Cynthia Kenyon: The animal’s clearly in the nursing home. And if you look at the tissues of the animal, they’re starting to deteriorate. You know, even if you’ve never seen one of these little C. elegans, which probably most of you haven’t seen one, you can tell they’re old. Isn’t that interesting? So, there’s something about aging that’s kind of universal. And now, here is the daf-2 mutants. One gene has changed out of 20,000, and look at it. It’s the same age, but it’s, it’s not in the nursing home. It’s going skiing.
Cynthia Kenyon: So, it’s aging actually. This is what’s really cool. It’s aging more slowly. It takes this worn two days to age as much as the normal worm ages in one day.
Lisa Berry Drago: Kenyon’s goal is to replicate her findings with the C. elegans in humans, to get humans to be able to double or triple or quadruple their lifespans, but still be able to, uh, go skiing.
Cynthia Kenyon: And when I tell people about this they tend to think of maybe a, a 90 or 80 or 90-year-old person who looks really good for being 90 or 80. But it’s really more like this: suppose you’re… Let’s say you’re a 30-year-old guy, or 30… In your 30s, and you’re, um, you’re a bachelor and you’re dating people and you meet someone that you really like. You get to know her, and you’re in a restaurant, and you say, “Well, how old are you?” She says, “I’m 60.” That’s what it’s like. And you would never know. You would never know till she told you.
Alexis Pedrick: And therein lies our powerful, nearly divine figure that we wanna prop up. No, not Steve Jobs or the Pope. Eternal youth.
Ted talk host: What you’re talking about here is not, uh, extending human lifespan by preventing death, so much as extending human youth span.
Cynthia Kenyon: Yes, that’s right. It’s more like, say, if you were a dog. You notice that you’re getting old, and you look at your human and you think, “Why isn’t this human getting old?” They’re not getting old in, in the dog’s lifespan. It’s more like that. But now we’re the human looking at… looking out and imagining a different human.
Lisa Berry Drago: Uh, but who is this we? Are we really all going to be the long-lived humans? Or will inequality rear its ugly head, allowing only the most privileged among us to be those 60 year olds who look like they’re 30?
Alexis Pedrick: And keep in mind, we haven’t always wanted eternal youth. If you take a listen to our vampire story, you’ll hear how people in the 19th century found the idea of being frozen in time completely unnatural. And they did in Bacon’s time too.
Meagan Allen: I can’t think of any person in the Middle Ages who thinks that either you can or you should live forever. It’s really interesting to compare this to modern people, and, you know, it’s the Silicon Valley people who think that, like, they can live forever. Even something like cryogenics, where you’re freezing the body with the idea that you’ll come back in, uh, several 100 years, 1000 years when technology has advanced to the point where you can live forever. I mean, Roger Bacon, and everyone else in the Middle Ages, would have been horrified by this idea. They, they would have thought this was blasphemous in the extreme.
Alexis Pedrick: Speaking of cryogenics, we’re going there next. Because while humans have not achieved dramatic life extension yet, our efforts have not been entirely in vain. In fact, with each attempt, humanity gets some unanticipated benefits.
Lisa Berry Drago: Chapter Three. Shooting for the moon, landing among the stars.
Alexis Pedrick: Scottsdale, Arizona is a desert city just east of Phoenix. It’s known for its spa resorts, golf courses, and high number of retirees. The desert might seem like an odd place to store frozen bodies indefinitely, but that’s where Alcor Life Extension Foundation lies.
Lisa Berry Drago: Alcor is one of three places in the world that specialize in freezing the dead in the hopes of reanimating them later. A practice known as cryonics. Scottsdale is extremely hot, but it also has very little weather, so it’s airport suffers very few flight delays, and that’s really crucial when you need to transport recently dead bodies quickly. Linda Chamberlain is the co-founder of Alcor. She started it with her husband, Fred Chamberlain, in 1972. Fred was Alcor’s first patient, and he’s already been cryogenically preserved.
Linda Chamberlain: I am one of the founders of Alcor, so I have been involved in this for, like, 50 years. I have three family members who are already cryopreserved, and I have arrangements, uh, to be cryo preserved myself. So, I kind of represent a lot of different viewpoints. [laughs].
Lisa Berry Drago: Linda started Alcor after suffering her own sort of existential crisis about death.
Linda Chamberlain: I’m not a religious person, so I didn’t have any solution to the problem of death, like people with religious views do. And so, to me it was just, you know, when your time comes, that’s the end and, and it’s over. And then I thought, “Oh, but wait a minute. Maybe science, uh, can actually help to solve this very unhappy situation.”
Lisa Berry Drago: When a patient arrives at Alcor, a medical team stabilizes them at a very low temperature, and replaces their blood and 99% of their body’s water with medical grade antifreeze. Then they’re stored at minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit.
Linda Chamberlain: And so, there is no further deterioration possible, not for hundreds of years, not for thousands of years.
Lisa Berry Drago: Just FYI, minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature of liquid nitrogen, which is what the patients are eventually stored in.
Linda Chamberlain: The nice thing about that is that we can fill a giant thermos bottle with liquid nitrogen, put the patients in the liquid nitrogen, and they just stay at that temperature. We don’t have to refrigerate them or anything. It’s a very stable system at that point.
Alexis Pedrick: 182 people are currently preserved in liquid nitrogen at Alcor. Their website describes it as pausing the dying process. Currently, there’s no clear path towards bringing these people back to life or health, so they’re all just waiting, literally frozen in time.
Lisa Berry Drago: And it’s not gonna be an easy problem to solve. Many of Alcor’s patients were extremely elderly when they died. Or they passed of terminal illnesses. None of them want to be reanimated with the same afflictions that killed them in the first place. So, they’re relying on a future where medicine will be able to restore their youth and health. They’re relying on hope.
Alexis Pedrick: Cryonics may not have brought anyone back from the dead yet, but the stabilization procedures it uses have found a place in life saving medicine. The Mayo Clinic now uses hypothermia to stop the hearts of patients undergoing heart surgery. And similar methods are also used on victims of gunshot wounds.
Linda Chamberlain: By lowering their, uh, body temperature, they can give themselves more time to actually work to repair damage and restore this person to good health. So, those kinds of procedures are becoming more and more common in normal medical, uh, practice, and there’s starting to be an overlap between what emergency medicine does and what we do.
Lisa Berry Drago: Linda Chamberlain also sees potential in improving how organs can be stored for donation. If they could be frozen and stabilized like Alcor’s patients, it would be easier to get them to organ recipients.
Alexis Pedrick: And that’s not the only benefit. In our pursuit for immortality, we found ways to catch diseases earlier and sometimes even cure them. We’ve developed life saving treatments for injuries that used to kill us. And let’s not forget all of the work done with stem cells.
Chip Walter: There are other people that are in the book that explore stem cell technologies, uh, you know, o- other ways to, to try to look at what causes us to age ahead of time, so that we can, you know, begin to tackle those issues piecemeal, you know. And, and all these things would extend life.
Lisa Berry Drago: And we’re not leaving alchemy out of this story. Did cinnabar sublime with mercury really help emperors live longer? Did the gloria inaestimabilis ever extend the life of the Pope by hundreds of years? No. But alchemy, of course, is how we got chemistry, and chemistry has done a lot for medicine.
Alexis Pedrick: Despite its inevitability, its role as a constant companion to our humanness, death is scary and sad and upsetting. And part of the reason why is because it’s a mystery. No one really knows what it’s like. Most of the world’s belief systems have a component of immortality, something that comforts us with the belief that when we’re gone, we’re not really gone. At least not spiritually.
Lisa Berry Drago: The whole time we were working on this episode, I was reminded of something that Jonathan Van Ness, the Queer Eye star and general style icon said: “Aging is a privilege. We’re lucky if we get to grow old. If your needs are met and you get to live, eight, nine or even 10 decades, it’s a blessing.”
Alexis Pedrick: And after that, well, there’s hope. Actually, Linda Chamberlain says that she believes a big draw to cryonics is that it gives people hope.
Lisa Berry Drago: Do you think in some ways cryopreservation is also like a comforting thing? If it never works, the people that are frozen won’t know that it never worked. But is it like a comforting thing to believe in before you, you die?
Linda Chamberlain: I think, yes, it is. Um, I, I look back at my own experience, not being a religious person, I had pretty much just accepted the idea that when you die, you’re gone, that’s the end. Nothing that anybody can do for you. Um, and then, I, uh, be- became familiar with the idea of cryonics and, uh, the possibility that medical science might be able to reverse that. And so, that was very exciting to me. And, uh, it’s, uh, much more comforting to think about the fact that I’ll be waiting in liquid nitrogen until revival technologies can return me to healthy function. That’s much more comforting than just thinking that I’ll be dead and gone and, uh, after a while, nobody’s even gonna remember me. So, uh, yes, it is comforting. And I think that, uh, many of our members have expressed the fact that it is comforting for them to think of their family members being cryopreserved and having the potential of being, um, returned to healthy function so that they can both be together again. And, and that’s definitely the way I feel about my family members.
Lisa Berry Drago: Along with Linda’s husband Fred, Fred’s father and Linda’s mother are both already cryopreserved at Alcor. Linda herself lives in an apartment complex in Scottsdale near Alcor, comforted by the belief that her family will all be together again one day. As far as she’s concerned, not being frozen means certain death. Being frozen leaves a window open.
Alexis Pedrick: And we like a window. We like to have options. That no one has been reanimated yet doesn’t bother Linda or any of Alcor’s 1400 members. They see it like this: every major scientific innovation seems crazy until it’s real. And Meagan Allen kind of agrees.
Meagan Allen: As someone who studies medieval science, a lot of the comments that I get from people who aren’t really familiar with the area is, “Well, medieval science, that’s all crazy. Like, they, they didn’t have any good scientific ideas. They were all crazy.” And, I mean, s- sure, a lot of their scientific ideas we don’t hold anymore. We’ve, we’ve got different scientific ideas. But I- I’ve [laughs]… If you took any 12th, 13th century thinker, physician, and put them in the 21st century, they would go back to their own time and say, “Wow, those guys are crazy.”
Lisa Berry Drago: Thanks for listening to this episode of Distillations.
Alexis Pedrick: Remember, Distillations is more than a podcast. It’s also a multimedia magazine.
Lisa Berry Drago: You can find our videos, stories, and every single podcast episode at distillations.org. And you’ll also find podcast transcripts and show notes.
Alexis Pedrick: You can follow the Science History Institute on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for news and updates about the podcast and everything else going on in our museum, library and research center.
Lisa Berry Drago: This episode was produced by Mariel Carr and Rigo Hernandez.
Alexis Pedrick: And it was mixed by Jonathan Pfeffer.
Lisa Berry Drago: The Science History Institute remains committed to revealing the role of science in our world. Please support our efforts at sciencehistory.org/givenow.
Alexis Pedrick: For Distillations, I’m Alexis Pedrick.
Lisa Berry Drago: And I’m Lisa Berry Drago.
Alexis Pedrick: Thanks for listening.