Weird Science


Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over the Edge, by Ed Regis, New York: Addison-Wesley, 320 pages, $18.95

Where is the line separating cutting-edge science from delusion and quackery? Scientists themselves have never been very good at drawing it. Repeatedly, the harebrained schemes of one day have become the accepted paradigms of the next. I had to remind myself of this fact quite frequently as I read Ed Regis's new book Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition.

The transhuman condition, Regis tells us, will be achieved when humans "have gone everywhere, done all things, and so on." Regis catalogs the efforts of various groups and individuals to reach that end. And a colorful lot of individuals they are, ranging from engineers who are just slightly ahead of their time to dreamers who are, to put it mildly, very much ahead of their time.

Regis tells of one scientist whose 5-year-old daughter accidentally saw him naked. "Did God really make you like that?" she asked her father. "Couldn't he have made you better?" For most of us, this question might lead to joining a gym or going on Slim Fast. But for this man, it led to speculations on how to redesign the human body, what organs to get rid of, how to improve the ones we keep, and whether it's even desirable to keep an organic body. Even the appreciative Regis refers to the hubris, or arrogance, of his subjects on several occasions.

At the more practical end of Regis's spectrum is Bob Truax, who built the rocket that Evel Knievel used in his ill-fated attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon. Now Truax wants to do for rockets what Jobs and Wozniak did for computers. He dreams of ending government's monopoly on space travel and giving individuals the ability to journey into space on their own. While Truax's goal of a rocket in every garage may not be reached any time soon, Regis notes that others—such as the late George Koopman and his American Rocket Co.—have had some success in their attempts to develop private commercial rockets.

Space travel for the masses may be decades away, but the people at the Alcor Life Extension Program are prepared. For a fee, they'll freeze someone and thaw her out years later. (For a smaller fee, they'll freeze only the head.) Actually, the thawing presents some difficulties. Freezing organs can cause them to rupture. Current technology cannot revive or repair Alcor's deep-frozen clients. But Alcor believes that one day science will solve these problems, and a future generation will revive Alcor's clients.

Regis notes that nanotechnology is the most promising vehicle for reviving Alcor's stiffs, er, clients. Nanotechnology theorist Eric Drexler postulates a world in which robots smaller than most organic cells will satisfy all of our wants. Want a rocket built? Just program millions of the little buggers to build one. Want to revive a frozen body? Just inject nano-robots into the corpse, and they'll examine every cell, repairing each one and reviving the patient. As for the frozen heads, one person tells Regis, "You drop the head into a bucket of nanomachinery and a new body grows out of the stump of the neck."

As Drexler sees it, there's virtually no limit to what the robots can do. Nanotechnology, he claims, will give us "complete control over the structure of matter." One could synthesize beef without the aid of cattle, for example. Regis writes, "You'd open the box, shovel in a quantity of cheap raw materials—some dirt, straw, grass clippings, or whatever—then close the box and let the assemblers ply their trade, which is to say that they'd break down certain chemical bonds and make others, all according to a plan. After a while you'd open a box and out would roll a wad of fresh beef." Of course, we'll have to build in plenty of safeguards, or the robots will continue to turn matter into beef until the entire universe is converted into a giant rump roast.

It would be easy to dismiss these people as kooks, but many of them have solid credentials. Bob Truax was there at the beginning of rocketry, working with Robert Goddard. Drexler teaches at Stanford. Regis himself certainly treats his subjects with sympathy and respect. Mambo Chicken is very funny, but the humor rarely comes at the expense of the people written about.

Still, listening to these people talk is rather like listening to medieval theologians discussing how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. They seem impractical, almost otherworldly. While they spend a great deal of time talking about what we can do with advanced technology, there's precious little discussion of how to produce that technology. Certainly, if we had lots of little robots that repair damaged cells, then we could let them repair damaged cells. But where are the robots supposed to come from?

Yet as far as I can tell from Great Mambo Chicken, none of these people wants to use the government to enforce his utopian schemes. Indeed, several explicitly oppose government aid. Without that government power, these people are, at worst, harmless eccentrics. At best, they are the prophets of a new techno-utopia.

Charles Oliver is assistant editor of REASON.