Gregory Benford

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics 4th Quarter 2011

By Chana de Wolf

Gregory Benford is a member of the Alcor Scientific Advisory Board.

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Gregory Benford

It may come as no surprise that many cryonicists are avid science fiction fans. After all, cryonics is only necessary because we can't already reverse aging and cure lethal diseases, so being on board to see the (possibly far-distant) future is requisite. Indeed, cryonics is somewhat of a science fiction staple, and such stories have inspired a select few readers to investigate real-world cryonics since the very first writers began freezing characters as a means to move futuristic plots forward. But one of those writers is a cryonicist himself, and his name is Gregory Benford.

Gregory Benford
Gregory participating in discussion at the National Academy of Sciences in 2010.

Benford, a professional research physicist since 1967 and professor at UC Irvine since 1971, also discovered cryonics through his love of science fiction, having read some of the early classics like The Door into Summer and The Age of the Pussyfoot. But he didn't learn of Alcor until the Eaton Collection annual conference on science fiction in 1992. The theme that year was life extension and immortality in science fiction and fantasy—a topic which piqued Gregory's curiosity. Since the event was held at UC Riverside near the Alcor facility, he and fellow science fiction writer Joe Haldeman left the conference and took a tour. "[Alcor] impressed me with its realistic style of doing what one can now, despite the many unknowns," Gregory remembers. "I was about 50 and realizing how the mortality wall was coming up on my horizon. That led me to write my longest novel, closely modeled on the Alcor experience."

That novel, Chiller, Gregory wrote while immersed in the study of cryonics. Under pressure from his publisher, Bantam, it was published under the pseudonym 'Sterling Blake' in 1993 just after he had executed his arrangements with Alcor. Set around the UC Irvine campus and its medical school, the novel is based on Alcor and well-known figures in Alcor history such as Mike Darwin, Saul Kent, Steve Harris, Mike Perry, David Pizer, Hugh Hixon, Arthur McCombs, Ralph Whelan, Max More, Fred and Linda Chamberlain, Dr. Thomas Donaldson, and Jerry Leaf. "Studying the odds and thinking through the grand sweep of what the 21st century could bring, I saw that joining Alcor and getting a cryonics contract seemed like a calculated gamble, worth the price," he says. "Still does."

Gregory Benford
Gregory lives life passionately, with a particular zest for “the banquet of life,” hiking and traveling.

As a writer of "hard" science fiction — that based on science fact and often incorporating his own research in plasma turbulence theory and astrophysics — Gregory embraced the opportunity to write a novel that allowed him to call attention to cryonics and to educate readers about the real science behind "freezing people." To that end, he is currently in the process of reissuing Chiller under his own name with some updating and rewriting, plus a long afterword. "There's an enormous social weight leaning against us, working to ignore our approaching demise," he notes. "Facing it demands courage. Maybe Chiller...will help in the struggle."

Gregory may have been reading science fiction since he was a kid and writing it since the 1960s, but it was his first wife's long battle with kidney disease all through the 1990s and her death due to cancer in 2002 that impressed him with the terrible burden that death places upon humans, causing him to think about the possible alternatives. "What would humans be like if not under this incessant threat?" he wondered. The answer to that question, he determined, "was definitely worth seeking and cryonics is the stop-gap measure that might get us there."

Understandably, recovering from his wife's death was very difficult, taking Gregory through years of depression. His wife had refused to be cryopreserved, so he knew he would never see her again. He thought long and hard about how to do something to improve human health and extend the healthy portion of the human lifespan. And then he did it.

Gregory Benford
Astrophysicist Gregory Benford, Ph.D., is an Alcor member and science fiction writer. He teaches physics and astronomy at the University of California, Irvine.

"In 2006 I started Genescient, a firm dedicated to extending heathspans now using genomics, well ahead of the sluggish big pharma drug route," he explains. "Our first product, STEMCELL100, upregulates repair genes in our cardiovascular system, increasing fitness. There are more products built on the same strategy coming."

In fact, Genescient is set to tackle the biggest threat to human health of all—neurodegenerative disease. Brain-threatening diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's are notoriously difficult to treat. The brain is well-protected by the blood-brain-barrier (BBB), making drug delivery difficult. And even therapeutic drug treatment ultimately cannot stop the onslaught of degeneration. So far, there is no cure. This bleak state of affairs begs us to take a different approach. "The fact that there's not much you can do about neurological diseases has pushed Genescient in that direction," explains Gregory.

"Longevity has many approaches," stresses Gregory. "Genescient developed STEMCELL100 to gain time, because we're all in a race with the clock." In fact, Gregory feels that buying time to let the technology for suspension and resuscitation develop is the most challenging aspect of cryonics. Because resuscitation from cryopreservation is likely to be a last-in-first-out technology, he is convinced that the more time you can get now, the sooner you'll see the future. "The later you emerge, the harder will be the adjustments to future societies."

As a science fiction author, Gregory has written over twenty-five novels, including Jupiter Project, Artifact, Against Infinity, Eater, and Timescape. He is a two-time winner of the Nebula Award, and has also won the John W. Campbell Award, the Australian Ditmar Award, and the 1990 United Nations Medal in Literature. In 1989 he was host and scriptwriter for the television series "A Galactic Odyssey," and later contributed to Japan 2000. He has served as scientific consultant to the NHK Network and for Star Trek: The Next Generation. His scientific contributions and awards are also numerous—importantly, his work for contributions to science and the public comprehension of it was commended by his receipt of the Lord Foundation Award in 1995. You can see what he's up to at

Gregory Benford
Gregory Benford with his identical twin brother, Jim Benford, in 1956.

Aside from his work in science and science fiction, Gregory enjoys an active life. He loves the beach in particular and has been an avid surfer for years, though he mostly prefers to body surf now. Living on the beach also allows him the opportunity to swim every day. Additionally, he takes great pleasure in hiking and travel — "the banquet of life," as he calls it. And, as with many members, making cryonics arrangements has contributed to his passionate indulgence in life. "Focusing on the long future made me live more intensely," he acknowledges.

Last, but not least, Gregory wants other members to know that their contributions to the cryonics effort matter. "The more [cryonics] is accepted, the better our odds of developing a community that can carry us forward into a future well beyond our detailed imagining, but possible for us to reach. Let's do it. Our lives are at stake!"


by Gregory Benford

For years I knew Isaac from the outside,
through dread nightfalls and fresh daybreaks
over the galactic empire,
seeking as a teenage kid from Alabama
to know a future that hung foggy, shadowed.
Till I met him and in his penthouse high saw
Shades drawn against the immensity lurking over
Central Park. He would not lie in a bed against that
outer wall, he who deployed battle cruisers
through the starlit sevagram, and was a guy
who would not fly
in airplanes (one roller coaster was enough)
No, not tough
that way. Afraid of heights, yet he lived in a penthouse
because Janet wanted to,
for the view,
and once—only once—in a tux
high above Manhattan's flux
he backed out on the balcony
for a photo, never looking around.
Or hearing the sound
of time's sure falling.
Still, he saw the silky realm above,
even if those city-planet dwellers of Trantor
also feared their heavens. New Yorkers, all,
they loved their warrens.
Why not look further? I wondered,
while you debate the Galactic Empire's politics
in comfy rooms.

He would not entertain, when I brought it up,
the odd, chilly idea of cryonics.
"I'll die with my books on,"
he said, "and be gone."
And the other dreamers:
crisp Heinlein, folksy Simak,
crusty Jack Williamson, wise Silverberg,
ever-young Clarke, even Fred Pohl in his rational rigor—
all wrote of passing like sunrise rays
through the cold nitrogen lens to see
landscapes beyond our gray reality.
But none I found would take a "free freeze,"
as one cryonerd told me.
Ginny Heinlein said he (and she) didn't want him
to come back
from that dark silent cold,
though he was bold
and sure a better destiny brimmed ahead.
Bradbury sipped a cool dry martini
(having gotten two for Aldiss' one)
and deployed the neighborhood argument:
"I'd be alone in a world I didn't know,"
forgetting that's the way he came in.
No warm wife or daughters, maybe
—though why couldn't they come?—
yet fans aplenty, time-steeped in his voice, nostalgic.
There up ahead beckons a life
splashed across a bright new world,
and more –
vistas strange beyond the punctured metallic sky
huge above Metropolis.

So I wondered why he did not rage against
the fall of that night.
There's much up ahead, he said,
But you'll beā€¦dead.
Whatever the odds, Isaac (and yes, they are small),
at the very worst you would lie in a sterile dry hospital
(bed on an inside wall, please)
amid all those strained dim faces dear to you,
your past peeling out behind,
a plot outline
run backward.
Morphine-soft air and coughing out your last,
about to endow your Foundation,
end of story, yes.
Yet the cryonics techs down the hall,
waiting for the last notes strumming
in the back of your woozy mind
at a still center, would give a gift:
you'd smile –
and go to that great deep release
with a thin sliver of hope.

Below are excerpts from "Frozen Species, Deep Time, and Marauding Black Holes," Science, v. 293 (14 September 2001), by Robert Irion, reproduced from Cryonics 2nd Quarter 2002.

Few physicists have adjectives devoted to them, but Gregory Benford does. It's "Benfordesque," as in this review of his latest novel: "Eater is Benford's most Benfordesque book in quite a while." Yes, Eater has it all—bickering astrophysicists, useless bureaucrats, a love triangle, a smart but vindictive black hole, and a dying astronaut who downloads her brain into a space probe. Welcome to what one friend calls the "weird but stimulating mind" of Greg Benford.

Benford's mind isn't easy to summarize. Its contents include straight physics, such as his studies of relativistic electron beams here at the University of California (UC). His theoretical work extends to pulsars, the cores of active galaxies, and other lairs of turbulent jets. Currently, he and his colleagues are exploring whether microwave beams could propel sails of ultralight carbon fibers in space.

...Most people, though, know Benford's name from the big block letters on the covers of his science-fiction (SF) novels. He's written 20 so far, including the million-selling Timescape, his classic tale of messages across time that won the prestigious Nebula Award in 1980. Another hit novel, Cosm, told of baby universes trapped at UC Irvine's physics department and the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC) at Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island.

...Benford's fans and his professorial colleagues think that he deserves his reputation as the SF voice of the working physicist. "There are very few others who can put as much science into their fiction," says artificial-intelligence guru Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge. "And he is certainly unsurpassed in depicting the academic scenes." Adds Benford's close friend at UC Irvine, evolutionary biologist Michael Rose, "The big challenge in fiction is how to make academics interesting, because we aren't. Greg does that."

...Conversations with Benford whirl as unpredictably as his SF plots. He's genial and confident at age 60, delighted to tackle any imaginable topic. He's equally likely to refer to books by William Faulkner and to covers of MAD magazine. Names drop constantly: Dinner with Arthur C. Clarke leads to introducing Kurt Vonnegut at a speech leads to Isaac Asimov's agoraphobia. He loves to interject the word "duh," usually to make a dramatic point about the cluelessness of the powers that be. It's no surprise that his office is an eruption of books and papers, calmly centered only by a framed portrait of the Milky Way by his friend, space artist Jon Lomberg.

Through it all, key facts emerge about his life. For one, he and his brother Jim—president of Microwave Sciences Inc. in Lafayette, California—aren't just identical twins, they're "chiral twins, the rarest kind," Benford says. Greg is right-handed whereas Jim is left-handed, they have birthmarks on opposite cheeks, and their peppered gray hair spirals in opposite directions. They didn't part until Greg earned his Ph.D. in physics at UC San Diego 2 years before Jim, but they still collaborate.

...Consider [Benford's] "library of life" idea, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. Benford felt that a radical plan was needed to spur people to preserve as many endangered species as possible. Randomized freezing was his solution—a plan that reporters immediately dubbed "Noah's freezer." His abstract urged vigorous debate, and that's exactly what ensued. Benford organized a National Academy of Sciences workshop at Irvine 2 years later—a physicist calling ecologists to arms.

...Benford hasn't pursued the idea further. "I realized this issue could turn into a career, and I already had one," he says. Still, he's dismayed that scientists have not yet succeeded in making people aware of what we're doing to life on this planet. "Biologists can't shout loudly enough to penetrate to the public that in a mere human lifetime, we might eliminate one-third of the species," Benford says. "There's an astonishing silence, an unacknowledged fatalism. People don't have much hope beyond 30 years."

...[UC Irvine Chancellor] Ralph Cicerone acknowledges that Benford may not receive due credit within UC's reward system for his nonphysics research. His prolific SF career doesn't help, either. "There's a supposition that to be concerned about the larger social place of physics is marginal," Benford says. "To do so by writing fiction—people automatically think it's suspect." ...

...For his part, Benford doesn't care about campus politics. "What I wanted was a life in the sciences, and I got it," he says. And much more, as millions of readers can attest.


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