Distinguished Speakers Series

College Welcomed Nanotechnology Expert Ralph Merkle to Speak on "Life and Death"

Ralph Merkle, Ph.D.The Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences Division of Math, Science, and Technology welcomed Ralph Merkle, Ph.D., to Nova Southeastern University as part of the college’s Distinguished Speakers Series. Merkle discussed "Life, Death, and Cryonics" on Thursday, October 2, 2008.

A pioneer in computer science for three decades, Merkle co-invented public-key cryptography, the safeguarding of electronic communications using mathematical keys. For his findings, he received the 1996 Kanellakis Award, given by the Association for Computing Machinery for accomplished research in computing.

Merkle also has been at the forefront of research into technologies once considered science fiction, such as nanotechnology (the science of molecular manufacturing) and cryonics (the science of using ultra-cold temperatures to preserve human life with the intent of restoring good health when technology becomes available to do so). Merkle has long been a proponent of nanotechnology as the next stage of manufacturing, in which molecules will be manipulated and rearranged at an atomic level to create new products.

“A common misconception is that cryonics freezes the dead. As the definition of 'death' is 'a permanent cessation of all vital functions,' the future ability to revive a patient preserved with today's technology implies the patient wasn't dead. Cryonics is actually based on the more plausible idea that present medical practice has erred in declaring a patient 'dead.' A second opinion from a future physician—one with access to a fundamentally better medical technology based on a mature nanotechnology—lets us avoid the unpleasant risk that we might bury someone alive.”

- Ralph Merkle, Ph.D.

Merkle received his bachelor's and master's degrees in computer science from the University of California at Berkeley. He received his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. He has served as an executive editor of the research journal Nanotechnology and is a former director of the Foresight Institute, a public-interest think tank dedicated to exploring issues of nanotechnology and society. He is co-recipient of the 1998 Feynman Prize in Nanotechnology for his theoretical research into molecular tools for controlling atomically precise chemical reactions. Merkle is currently a director of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a leading U.S. cryonics research organization, and has served as chair for several Alcor conferences covering cryobiology, tissue engineering, nanomedicine, and genetic engineering, among other topics. He also is a Distinguished Professor of computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Merkle’s current work in cryonics utilizes his research in nanotechnology to delve into a controversial area of research. According to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, “Cryonics is a speculative life support technology that seeks to preserve human life in a state that will be viable and treatable by future medicine. It is expected that future medicine will include mature nanotechnology, and the ability to heal at the cellular and molecular levels.” The purpose of cryonics is to save lives and restore health, yet it challenges society’s definitions of “death” with the underlying assumption that patients declared dead by today’s doctors may be revived in the future.

Merkle’s visit corresponded with the college's 2008-2009 academic theme of “Life and Death,” which united the college's students and faculty to explore the relationship of life and death within social, scientific, legal, religious, and political contexts.

To learn more about Ralph Merkle, Ph.D., visit the following resources:

Companion Events

Over My Dead Body: Is a Body Necessary for Life?
October 1, 2008
12:00–1:30 p.m.
Alvin Sherman Library,
Room 2053

This faculty panel hosted by the Division of Humanities discussed digital technology and the possibilities of achieving immortality by abandoning our bodies and continuing our lives as digital beings. Faculty members Steven Alford, Ph.D., Josh Feingold, Ph.D., and Darren Hibbs, Ph.D., participated.

International Birth and Funeral Customs
October 1, 2008
4:00–5:30 p.m.
Mailman-Hollywood Auditorium

This faculty panel hosted by the Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences discussed personal experiences and research in India, Ghana, Tanzania, Jamaica, Haiti, and France. Birth and funeral traditions from historic to contemporary times also were part of the discussion. The event included selections of live music used in traditional rituals as well as descriptions of the traditions associated with entering and leaving life.