BERKELEY, Calif. - Why would Muhammad Ali secretly visit a Berkeley laboratory full of scientists whose ultimate goal is to bring frozen humans back from the dead?
The former world heavyweight boxing champion toured such a laboratory in May 1988 at the University of California at Berkeley.
His guide was Avi Ben-Abraham, who promotes the practice of freezing the dead until the day medical science develops a way to heal and revive them.
"It's only a matter of time before Ali, who is fascinated by this emerging science of cryonics, will sign up himself for the procedure," said Ben-Abraham, of Los Altos Hills, Calif.
In addition to Ali, other notables have looked into cryonics, and many have taken the big liquid-nitrogen plunge. It has been reported that Malcolm Forbes and designer Halston made provisions before they died to have some of their tissues preserved for future cloning.
Walt Disney made detailed inquiries into cryonics, and though his family denies he was frozen, many in the field of cryonics believe he was.
Ben-Abraham, 34, president of the Cupertino, Calif.-based American Cryonics Society, is a reclusive man whose piercing intelligence has brought him international acclaim and Nobel prize nominations. The native of Israel is the real-life Doogie Howser, M.D., listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest person ever to become a medical doctor - 18 at Italy's Milan University.
Always an outsider, Ben-Abraham was able to read and write at age 2. While other children played, he sat in university libraries poring over medical texts, encouraged in his studies by his brother, Chaim Ben-Abraham, who has an IQ estimated to surpass 300.
Driven by his desire to eradicate human disease and suffering, Avi Ben-Abraham enrolled in medical school to understand the mysteries of the human organism. He took part in an open-heart operation at age 16 and scored 100 percent in all 35 of his medical exams.
After graduating, Ben-Abraham performed cancer research, but later spent years delving into theoretical physics with brother Chaim. Ben-Abraham was reluctant to discuss his physics work, which he said is classified top secret. The results, which he said laid the foundation for the Strategic Defense Initiative technology, led to the brothers' nominations for Nobel prizes in physics and peace.
Now, Ben-Abraham prepares to advance science 500 years within his lifetime. He envisions a world with no illness, where today's diseases will be summed up in a single line in a history text. "The most permanent and unchallenged killer of all times is the disease of aging," he said. "Science must be daring and innovative. I don't accept that death is inevitable."
These innovations may be years in coming. In fact, most scientists doubt death can ever be conquered. But Ben-Abraham plans to witness the fruit of his research, even if he has to wait out the intervening period as a human ice cube.
Ben-Abraham believes millions of people will join him in the big chill. We will be swayed by celebrity endorsements and spectacular scientific breakthroughs, he said.
So far, hundreds have signed up and 34 people have been frozen - or cryonically suspended. Twelve of them chose the more radical approach of neurosuspension, freezing only their heads. They apparently hoped that future technology would allow a new body to be cloned. Cryonics patients often pay for the procedure, which costs about $100,000, through life-insurance policies naming the cryonics society as beneficiary.
Some who have asked for the cold treatment were turned down.
At the height of pre-war tension between the United States and Iraq, representatives of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein asked Ben-Abraham for information about cryonics and cloning.
Ben-Abraham reportedly turned down the request due to the special circumstances and Saddam's ruthless character, but was reluctant to discuss the subject.
Though cryonics is in its infancy, even by most enthusiasts' accounts, the meager amount of research in the field has brought with it some startling results.
Most notable is the story of Miles, the beagle who was frozen for more than an hour and survived to wag his tail. A team of scientists at UC Berkeley chilled the dog to about 32 degrees Fahrenheit, replaced his blood with artificial blood containing chemicals that act as antifreeze, and then warmed him again.
Miles, named after a character in Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper," was clinically dead for 15 minutes; there was no cardiovascular activity, respiration, circulation or brain waves. When he revived, the researchers gave him back his own blood and weeks later escorted him to an appearance on the Phil Donahue television show, where he behaved like a normal dog.
The researchers were eventually able to revive beagles to unimpaired health after four hours of clinical death, and later held them at freezing for eight hours, though those animals suffered brain damage.
While many have been impressed by the defrosted dog's survival, Ben-Abraham said he believed experiments with monkeys would truly turn the tide of public interest in favor of cryonics.
He said he expected scientists working at American Cryonics Society laboratories to succeed in reviving a monkey from a one-hour freeze sometime in the next few months.