As Richard Leis Jr. learns about the science of today to provide his livelihood, he's counting on the science of tomorrow to give him a second chance at life if his is cut short.
Leis studies geosciences at the University of Arizona and works in the school's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory, helping study high-resolution images of Mars. Meanwhile, he's paying $22 a month into a life insurance policy that would provide $250,000 if he dies young.
That's enough to freeze his body at minus 196 degrees Celsius and store it indefinitely at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, waiting for medical advances that could bring him back to life.
Alcor attracted national attention six years ago when baseball legend Ted Williams was preserved here. Today, the bodies or heads of 84 people are stored at Alcor, and 865 people, including Leis, have signed up to be cryonically frozen upon their deaths.
"If and when I die, of all the choices, only cryonics has even the slightest chance of preserving the body well enough so that new technologies in the future can bring me back to life," Leis said. "I'm betting on that slight chance, if it becomes necessary."
Leis, who is in his mid-30s and in good health, said his 20-year term life insurance policy allows him to track medical advances and re-evaluate his decision later.
Tanya Jones, executive director for Alcor, said the advances needed to bring people back aren't that far off, perhaps only 30 years away.
"A lot of things are right on the horizon," Jones said.
Alcor is one of two U.S. facilities that store bodies frozen cryonically. Using nitrogen gas, liquid nitrogen and solutions that prevent cell damage, cryonics is designed to preserve bodies indefinitely.
According to Alcor's membership information, the minimum cost for freezing and storing a body is $150,000, and the minimum cost for only the head and brain is $80,000. Living members are required to pay annual membership fees ranging from about $100 to $400, and there are extra charges for non-U.S. members and for last-minute freezing for non-members.
Proponents say cryonics is the one chance people have to live again, but Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said those considering being frozen should think about what it would be like to come back. For example, a person revived in the future wouldn't have any relationships or ties to that time.
"Who we are isn't just defined by what's in our heads; it's also by our relationships," Caplan said.
Another question, he said, is whether a person would maintain memories and personality should he or she be reanimated.
And even those questions presuppose that cryonics operations such as Alcor can stay in business indefinitely.
"You almost have to ask, is this something that the government should step in and outlaw as false advertising," Caplan said.
Jones said a large share of Alcor's funding is placed in trusts for those who are frozen to ensure that they will be taken care of in perpetuity. If Alcor were to go under, she said, it simply would stop taking in more bodies.
As for memories and personality, Jones said Alcor intends to do its best to bring people back as they were originally.
"But it's definitely something there can be no guarantee on," she said.
David Pascal, secretary of The Cryonics Society, a nonprofit group that educates about low-temperature preservation, said the medical developments that will make cryonics pay off are just around the corner. For example, he said it's now possible to freeze a rabbit kidney, thaw it and transplant it successfully.
"People think of it as taking a sick person and sticking them in the refrigerator for a hundred years," he said by telephone from Rochester, N.Y.
Another person on Alcor's member list is Rafal, a physician and scientist from Virginia who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used.
"I believe cryonics is something that could work, and if it does work, then it would save me from dying," he said.
Rafal said he disagrees with Caplan's concerns about a revived person fitting into a future culture.
"A reasonable person would find a place in society and have a new life with no difficulty," he said.
Leis, the University of Arizona student, said he's happy to have the option to be preserved until someone figures out how to revive and cure him.
"The technological breakthroughs in cryopreservation suggest that we at least have the ability to preserve biological matter relatively well for a longer period of time," he said. "Whether or not we will be able to do anything with that biological matter down the road remains unseen."