R. Michael Perry, Ph.D.

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics 3rd Quarter 2010

By Chana de Wolf

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R. Michael Perry

If you have read an issue of Cryonics before, then you are most likely familiar with Dr. R. Michael Perry. Few people are as universally respected within the cryonics community as he, and with good reason. Working at Alcor since 1987, and serving as Patient Caretaker essentially the whole time, Dr. Perry has proved to be a dedicated cryonics activist and has provided careful watch over those Alcor members who have been preserved cryogenically for future advances in medicine. Dr. Perry's commitment to the care of Alcor patients has been steadfast — a solid role model for the responsibility we have to protect the most vulnerable and defenseless of our fellow cryonicists.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Dr. Perry has contributed to Alcor and to cryonics in countless other ways. Applying his background in mathematics and computer science, he programmed much of the software Alcor used until recently to automate cooldown to liquid nitrogen temperature. He maintains the patient logbook and does number crunching to produce case statistics, predictions of expected case load, and other analyses meaningful to Alcor's operations.

Combining technical knowledge and a well-developed intellectual philosophy about the potential of the continued progress of humanity, Dr. Perry also contributes by writing extensively about the moral issues surrounding cryonics and life extension technologies, ultimately expressing his comprehensive view in the book Forever For All: Moral Philosophy, Cryonics, and the Scientific Prospects for Immortality (available from Amazon). He also performs writing tasks at Alcor, serves as de facto Alcor historian, and is a regular contributor to Cryonics Magazine, where he has kept readers abreast of breaking technological news and written book reviews and other articles on a wide range of topics, including alternatives to cryonics.

R. Michael Perry Self-portrait, December 2009.

Since those of us in cryonics have known him as a singularly stationary man, it may be a surprise to some that Dr. Perry ("Mike") moved around quite a bit before settling into his long career at Alcor. As the son of an Army Air Corps officer, he was born on Adak Island in the Aleutian chain in Alaska and moved from there to South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Alabama (his mother's home state) over the next dozen years. Then his father did a tour of duty in Morocco, where Mike lived from age 12 to 14. Afterward his family returned to the States, first spending a couple of years in Colorado and then to the island of Maui, Hawaii, where Mike spent his senior year of high school, graduating in 1965. There he got a summer job with a solar astronomer who had a telescope at the top of Mount Haleakala. Mike performed mathematical analysis and used the experience and other work in mathematics to prepare for his entry into the math program at the University of Chicago.

Though he now remembers an episode of Science Fiction Theater ("Dead Storage," 1955) as his first exposure to the idea of freezing an organism for later resuscitation, the pieces really started coming together for Mike while he was in college. "In 1965 I attended a lecture at the University of Chicago where the idea was offhandedly mentioned that some were thinking of freezing people at death for later revival. This was before anyone had actually been cryogenically preserved for this purpose, though the first attempt would occur only a few months later. I think the lecturer had heard about the freezing idea as spinoff from Robert Ettinger's book, The Prospect of Immortality, which had been commercially published the previous year."

Having abandoned belief in the supernatural in 1962, Mike had become acutely aware that death was a problem that needed solving, and that it probably could be solved by advanced technologies eventually. But "eventually" is a hard pill to swallow when you want to save lives. "There must be something we can do for people right now," Mike thought. Freezing them upon cardiac arrest for later reanimation was the first thing that came to mind. "At first I thought there must be something wrong with this idea, some known reason it wouldn't work, otherwise people would be doing it."

R. Michael Perry Mike's parents, Neil and Mary Perry, wedding picture, Feb. 16, 1946.

One day he overheard someone at school talking about the freezing idea with a group of people. "It became clear to me that there was no reason anyone could definitely point to for why it wouldn't work. I realized it was the logical choice to make, and I told the others right there that I was going to be frozen myself." Because it seemed so rational to him, he was surprised when no one else in the group said they were considering it. Mike spent many years after this experience asking himself if there was another rational way to overcome the problem of death but kept coming back to the idea of cryonics. "I didn't have a sense of urgency about it — I just thought vaguely that I'd make the freezing arrangements in due course. Being as young as I was and in good health I didn't think I needed to take immediate action. Now I see that was a mistake in more ways than one. You never know when you'll need the services, even if you are healthy. People die in accidents, for instance, plus there was a lot of the early cryonics history I missed out on. Someone has said to me that as far as that goes, I didn't miss much, but I've thought many times there might have been something I could have done to avert some of the disasters that happened that first decade, when so many patients were lost." In 1977 though, he was ready and did what anyone of his persuasion should do — he made cryonics arrangements.

Mike went on to obtain an M.S. (1979) and Ph.D. (1984) in Computer Science from the University of Colorado. He recalls, "Back then there was great concern over the early human freezings that had failed and been abandoned. Alcor at this time was promoting head-only freezing as a way to lower maintenance costs, plus had a policy of insisting on up-front payments for all cases, whether head-only or whole-body. This hard-headed, rational approach was reassuring, and in 1984, coincidentally, I moved to California where Alcor was based. So I changed my service provider to Alcor and signed up with them as a head-only or neuro, an arrangement I still have today."

Dr. Perry pursued a career in computers and returned briefly to Colorado, where he did programming work. But in 1987 he left Colorado for Arizona, where he briefly worked with the Society for Venturism, a cryonics-promoting organization started the previous year by David Pizer, that Mike had joined as one of the original directors. "Soon it developed that help was needed at Alcor, then located in Riverside, California, and I arrived there in May of '87, thinking perhaps I'd be there not too long before finding some sort of programming job. Alcor at that time had two people whose salaries were being paid, Hugh Hixon and Mike Darwin, and there was no provision for more. I served as a volunteer, with support from a generous benefactor, enough for basic needs."

R. Michael Perry Alaska, 1947. Father made crib.

A few months after Mike arrived at Alcor, a crisis erupted when a member, Dora Kent, underwent cardiac arrest at the facility with no physician present, prompting a coroner's investigation. "After that I was needed, while others were away from the facility, as they frequently were, just to answer phones and keep watch on things, since we didn't know what the authorities were planning to do. But the crisis was weathered, and Dora Kent and the other patients stayed frozen. Eventually Alcor won a legal victory that established cryonics as a legitimate practice in California, a precedent that has helped in other jurisdictions." In 1989, with more funding available, Mike went from volunteer to paid status. "My interest in cryonics led, a little unexpectedly, to this employment at Alcor after I had obtained a Ph.D. in computer science and thought that field would be my career. I have now been working at Alcor for 23 years, starting at age 40, so cryonics has long been a way of life."

Mike notes that his employment status and responsibilities have evolved over time, though some things have remained the same. "I started out pretty much as the newly-installed patient caretaker, and have been that all along. When I arrived they had an alarm system to warn if liquid nitrogen levels were getting low, but were not doing daily checks. That was an early responsibility I had that continues today. Writing articles for the magazine and doing programming work as needed, are activities that also have continued from early times. I used to be the main phone answerer; that has changed (and it's a relief). More or less, I do what circumstances call for that is within my domain of expertise, everything from helping with cooldowns to maintaining patient records, plus helping provide presence at the facility for security reasons."

Such a long career in cryonics has given Dr. Perry plenty of time to think more about eventualities. In particular, he began to think that, given adequate technologies, information can eventually be used to resuscitate all the people who have ever lived. Sound fantastic? Dr. Perry agrees. But it's not impossible, and he thinks it might even be occurring in alternate universes where parallel, similar efforts are taking place. "As a last resort," Dr. Perry speculates, "you could restore a past individual who had perished by guessing his/her brain structure and using advanced technology to recreate that individual in physical form. Despite the fantastic complexity of what you'd have to guess and the unlikelihood that all the countless but essential details would be correct, there is a nonzero chance, under the rules of quantum physics, that you would come up with just the right answer or close enough. And somewhere in a parallel world, someone like you doing what you were doing would get it exactly right, while you in turn would also get it exactly right for the one you are recreating, someone who actually lived." Given the nascency of nanotechnology, however, and the complexities and uncertainties of the quantum approach, Dr. Perry recommends a more straightforward and practical option, such as cryonics, today.

Another eventuality that Dr. Perry has given thought to is the future. In response to those who are reluctant to make cryonics arrangements because they fear the future could be worse than today, he reminds them that "the world of the future will not just be the sort that might be dreamed up by science fiction writers to catch the interest of today's reading audience and generate some income." Instead, a world that would take the time to resuscitate cryonics patients (or other preserved individuals) is likely to be one that is "sensitized to the problems some may have in finding existence worthwhile, and should have advanced ways of helping such people."

R. Michael Perry With Joker (a guard dog) while living in Morocco about 1960.

To increase the probability of reaching that future world, Dr. Perry stresses the importance of what we can do now to improve cryopreservation and care of Alcor patients. "A starting point would be to work harder to encourage members to move close to Alcor, to better facilitate their cryopreservation when it comes, especially those who are getting older and have medical problems," he suggests. He also strongly supports technical research to improve capabilities in monitoring cryoprotection and cooldown processes, but thinks that there should also be research into ways of more quickly inhibiting deterioration after legal death, such as use of fixatives in combination with cryoprotection and cooling. "This is controversial but it hasn't been investigated as it should be," he contends. "More attention should be paid to the idea of low-cost alternatives to the expensive cryonics procedures that are now used, and which show signs of becoming even more expensive and harder to afford."

As his own contribution to this effort, Dr. Perry has obtained grant support for his project to analyze ischemic neural tissue. Describing the objectives of this work, he explains, "Ideally, I'm trying to document exactly what happens in brain tissue exposed to warm ischemia, construct a blow-by-blow account as it were. In addition, I am trying to develop a method of quantitatively assessing the condition of tissue exposed to warm ischemia, to determine how much damage has occurred and to better understand the sort of damage that occurs."

While the feasibility of developing methods and technologies for recording cellular changes in ischemic tissue is of great interest to Dr. Perry, he acknowledges that funding available for such research is limited. So he approached the issue from the next best starting place — analyzing electron microscope (EM) images of individual brain slices exposed to different periods of ischemia. In doing so, he has had some success in developing an algorithm that can, Dr. Perry says, "roughly estimate the amount of ischemic exposure for a given EM brain-slice image." He points out that this ischemia work is part of a larger project of his to assess the efficacy of various preservative techniques on tissue samples, with emphasis on finding lower-cost alternatives to present-day cryopreservation.

Dr. Perry's research is practical, and is in perfect alignment with his overall philosophy and actions. After over 30 years in cryonics and more than two decades at Alcor he has been involved in the history and making of cryonics as a science, as a movement, and as a community. His observations and experiences have led him to the conclusion that the greatest challenge in cryonics is not technical, social, political, or economic. Instead, Dr. Perry has determined, "I think the greatest challenge may be psychological — the level of determined dedication that will be necessary to see that people are cryopreserved and stay that way for as long as will be necessary until, as I think, resuscitations can actually happen."

R. Michael Perry With younger siblings and grandmother, about 1957.

Along the same theme, Dr. Perry strongly encourages other cryonics sympathizers to make and, importantly, to keep their cryonics arrangements. "Your life is in serious danger even if cryonics works, as I am reasonably hopeful it will," he warns. "Many people drop their arrangements long before they would need the service. Try to stay the course. Find reasons to do so, not just to benefit yourself but others and society at large. Learn to love the big picture, and all the good that it stands for, and let that love carry you forward."

Dr. Perry's writings relating to cryonics and immortalism are best represented in his book, Forever For All, which can be purchased or downloaded free (as ascii) by following the links at universalimmortalism.org/books.htm

 

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