On 23 July, Robert Ettinger, the 'father' of cryonics and the founder of The Immortalist Society, died and was promptly cryopreserved. Along with two hundred other people who have undergone the process, Ettinger expects to be unfrozen in a century or so, by which point scientists will have discovered how to unfreeze everyone, make them all invincible, and they will all live happily forever after. Ettinger and his followers don’t seem overly worried by the fact that this technology doesn’t actually exist yet, they’ve just taken an idea that Ettinger got from a science fiction story in the 1950s and run with it. So in honour of this man and his slightly bizarre belief system, Don’t Panic decided to take a brief look at immortality throughout the ages.
Robert Ettinger and a guy in a Hawaiian shirt outside the Cryonics Institute in Michigan
As far back as 14th century, peoples such as the Aztecs and the Mayans were obsessed with the idea of immortality, but as with many religions, it was a belief in spiritual immortality rather than physical immortality. However, the one big difference; it wasn’t how you lived, but how you died that determined whether you’d end up in Aztec heaven or hell. For example, dying in battle or childbirth earned you a direct ticket to heaven. Do all the naughty things you like, just make sure you go out with a bang. Then there’s always the Native Americans’ and Buddhists’ beliefs in reincarnation – essentially immortality, although your mates may be less inclined to hang out with you if you come back as a dung beetle. Or Ann Robinson.
There are many over the years that have desperately searched for the key to physical immortality though. During the Middle Ages, alchemists tried to create the Philosopher’s Stone, a supposedly magical substance that could make you immortal and also, handily, turn normal everyday metal to gold. After all, living forever can’t be cheap. In a similar vein, many were determined to find the Fountain of Eternal Youth, which upon being drunk from would immediately transform you to your youthful self. Many tried, but none succeeded. The Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, in an attempt to find it in 1513, did accidentally discover Florida however. Which is not necessarily a good thing. From then on, the Fountain of Youth was often been associated with Florida, which could mean that all those tight, youthful visages aren’t just the product of a booming plastic surgery industry.
The face of eternal youth?
Having assumed that the only truly immortal and everlasting thing on this planet was Blue Peter, it turns out we could be very wrong. Scientists believe that there is a potentially immortal jellyfish, the turritopsis nutricula, which on reaching sexual maturity, reverts back to polyps phase, and sexual immaturity. Despite being biologically immortal, these jellyfish are not invincible, and still subject to all the big bad jawed and tentacled things that could possibly kill them. So essentially, these poor creatures just get to lose their virginities over and over again until they die – a pretty strong argument against immortality if ever we heard one. However, scientists are yet to conclusively prove that these creatures are immortal, presumably because no-one has ever lived long enough to do so.
Nowadays, the pursuit of immortality seems to be approached in a slightly different manner – not true immortality, just living for a really, really long time. The world’s oldest person currently is Besse Cooper, who at 114 years old still has a way to go before beating the oldest living person on record, Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the ripe old age of 122. Here she is on her 120th, having a whale of a time:
She has competition, in the shape of the slightly crazy Japanese inventor, Dr. Nakamats, who claims that he will live to be 144 years old, a number that as far as we can tell he’s plucked from the air (Ed - being 12 x 12, it's the last number most children learn in their times tables, so perhaps there's something there?). Jeanne can probably sit tight though, if indeed she is still able to 'sit tight', as he has also claimed that at least six U.S. cities have created a “Dr Nakamats Day” in his honour which, according to everyone in the world other than Dr Nakamats, is complete crap. There is a surprising amount of people, however, slightly less crazy than Dr Nakamats, who would like to achieve this goal. It’s evident in how many people now compulsively exercise, take vitamins, eat well, avoid anything that gives you cancer which is anything, and refuse to drink smoke or take drugs. There’s even a wikiHow on it. Top tip: Avoid Carcinogens. Carcinogens cause cancer, which can kill you. Thanks, Wiki.
The scariest thing, however, is how close we may be to achieving it. Scientists believe that they may be on their way to extending the human life span to over 1,000 years old. They just have to figure out how to cure cancer first. The question is, who wants to be that old? 90 good years of hard and fast living, or 1,000 years of lettuce and early nights? We’ve all seen Madonna. It’s not pretty.