Nice Article, interesting guy :)))
Monday, November 17, 2003, 9:13:34 AM CT
The Man with a Plan to Convert a Galaxy into Beer Cans
Few people stretch the imagination as much as controversial theorist and activist Keith Henson
There are those who take solace in convention. For them, societal norms are a safety blanket and envisioning radical change is too unsettling. Then there's Keith Henson, who goes a long way to counterbalancing these futurephobes.
Anyone interested in stretching their imagination would do well to read Henson's writings, as there are few people as connected to today's cutting-edge thinkers and thinking. Since 1975, Henson has been involved with activities in such areas as space colonization, memetics, artificial life and nanotechnology, and made a name for himself as a prominent critic of-and even refugee from-Scientology.
It's thanks to his Scientology-critic role that I was able to meet Henson recently in Toronto, where I grabbed a coffee at a hotel with him, his wife Arel Lucas and Montreal "memetic engineer" David McFadzean.
Here, Henson, looking somewhat like a grandfatherly woodworker, discussed his past endeavors, his current pursuits, his future thinking and how tangling with Scientology landed him in Canada. "Some people think tomorrow will be just like today," says Henson. "It ain't going to be that way, folks."
Henson's involvement in what many would call far-out science began in the mid-1970s. As engineering students at the University of Arizona in Tucson, Henson and then-partner Carolyn Meinel read an article called "The Colonization of Space" by Gerard K. O'Neill.
The article spurred them to found the L5 Society, named after the fifth Lagrangian point between the Earth and the Moon. Publishing its first issue of L5 News in September 1975, the L5 Society existed "to educate the public about the benefits of space communities and manufacturing facilities, to serve as a clearinghouse for information and news in this fast-developing area, and to raise funds to support work on these concepts where public money is not available or is inappropriate."
The L5 Society, says Henson, hit about 10,000 people at its peak. While the number is impressive for such a niche organization, the caliber of members makes it even more so. Early members included such people as Eric Drexler, Hans Moravec, Timothy Leary and Marvin Minsky. Its directors included Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein and Freeman Dyson.
The Bean Dip Catastrophe
In 1987, the L5 Society merged with another organization, the National Space Institute, to become the then-16,000 member National Space Society.
Henson, however, became increasingly pessimistic about major space colonization happening anytime soon, and so moved on to new areas of thinking.
In 1987, he founded the Far Edge Committee to plan the Far Edge Party. Henson's thinking was that the only way to see our entire galaxy before it died was to create multiple copies of himself, using such undefined technologies as mind uploading. The copies would go and experience the galaxy and then return to share their memories. And they would meet in the distant future at the other side of the Milky Way for a party.
About a thousand people were initially planning to attend this Far Edge Party, meaning that it would involve trillions of copies. Organizing the party therefore became a logistical challenge. The bean dip alone, organizers noted humorously, would weigh enough to form a black hole-a problem called "The Bean Dip Catastrophe." In his no doubt playfully subversive tone, Henson told Ed Regis, author of Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition, "I expect to convert a whole galaxy into beer cans."
Henson has also been heavily involved in the cryonics community. Initially skeptical, he became a convert following Drexler's propositions about molecular-scale robots and how they could reconstruct tissue damaged by cryonic preservation. Henson signed up for cryonics with Lucas in 1988. The two also convinced friends such as Leary to sign up as well and signed up their two-year-old daughter, Amber, who became the world's youngest prospective cryonics client.
Most recently, Henson came to widespread attention for his vocal criticism of Scientology. In April 2001, he was convicted of "interfering with a religion" after Scientology accused him of picketing its Golden Era Productions in Riverside, California, where two women-Ashlee Shaner and Stacy Meyer-had died. Scientology has also successfully sued him for excerpting its scriptures, and Henson has been forced into bankruptcy.
Following the 2001 verdict, Henson promptly fled to Canada where he claimed political refugee status in an effort to force the US government to examine what he calls a "criminal conspiracy" between the Hemet District Attorney's office and Scientology to deprive him of his civil rights. "At the time, I was the only American seeking refugee status in Canada," he says.
Despite his present woes with Scientology-he says that bounty hunters would come after him if he reentered the US-Henson is still focused on the future, especially the speed with which change can happen, as demonstrated by the rapidity with which computer viruses can spread throughout the Internet.
But there's a sense that he's at least partly preoccupied with his current predicament. "What would happen if you went back to the States?" McFadzean asks Henson during our gathering. "I'd be killed," he quickly replies.
For now, Henson lives about one-and-a-half hours outside of Toronto, where he's pursuing his interests in evolutionary psychology and memetics, writing about such topics as sex, drugs and cults and the evolutionary origins of war. He's also doing electronic design and working on hobby projects such as a badge camera that works as a memory prosthesis, recording audio and video in a device the size of a credit card.
So for those who worried about the eclectic thinker after his recent run-ins with Scientology, take heart: After crossing the border, Henson's alive and well and still pushing boundaries