“I care tremendously about health, but I also care tremendously about the environment,” says Christine Peterson. To satisfy both passions on a daily basis, it helps that she is a co-founder, board member and workshop facilitator at the Foresight Institute. The Palo Alto area nonprofit has a thirty plus-year track record of cross-disciplinary research, advocacy and innovation related to cutting edge technologies—nanotechnology in particular.
Badassery at its best, courtesy of Minda Myers.
According to Christine, Foresight and the key publication that spurred its founding, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology, are responsible for the first widespread definition of nanotechnology. “The original definition that caught on in the U.S. and most of the world was the one that Foresight put forward, which really is molecular nanotechnology, the coming ability to build molecular machines, systems, materials—everything—with atomic level precision.” But this scope became greatly broadened by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative near the turn of the century, whose definition continues to encompass any science, technology and/or engineering performed at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometers. As a result, researchers who pursue the original goal often refer to their work as “molecular nanotechnology,” or “atomically precise manufacturing,” to avoid confusion.
The relationship between this extremely small-scale technology and the areas of health and the environment may seem, in a time characterized by the likes of prescriptive and conservation-driven efforts, rather elusive, or, as Christine has joked in so many of her presentations, “like science fiction.” Yet the ability to manipulate matter at the atomic level promises mammoth improvements to healthspan, lifespan, and Earth’s environment. Major pollutants like carbon dioxide can in principle be converted into methanol to power fuel cells, atomically-precise sensors can someday be sent through the body to detect and eradicate cancer cells. The applications are endless.
Christine testifies before Congress on the societal implications of advanced nanotechnology.
For Christine, the road to possibility of this magnitude started in upstate New York. Her father was an engineer, an orientation which encouraged her scientific world lens from early on. Christine credits good local public schools in helping to secure her college acceptance to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), as a chemistry major. “My high school teacher taught chemistry better than any professor I had at MIT later on,” she praises, but adds that, nonetheless, “I can’t say that chemistry was my great love.”
Christine shares a nibble with her mother, Norma Peterson, who is also an Alcor member.
She explored and eliminated other fields from consideration—economics, philosophy, history, law, and medicine—before toughing it out and finishing her chemistry degree. Still it became clear that her strengths lay elsewhere than chemical lab work. “It’s like cooking,” she jokes. “I wasn’t very good at it.” As an alternative to becoming an experimental scientist, she opted to pursue semiconductor engineering. Her chemistry background in fact would strengthen her talents for semiconductor electronics, which is central to modern computers and a mainstay of modern technology. (Silicon, the chemical element from which many semiconductors are made, made its way to the very name of the country’s most tech-saturated region: Silicon Valley.)
In addition to its improved alignment with her natural talents, the semiconductor engineering pathway furthered another career objective: supporting early publications in nanotech. Christine assumed responsibility for underwriting Eric Drexler’s seminal publication, Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology. Engines reached bookstores in 1986, the same year that Peterson and Drexler co-founded Foresight Institute. The concurrence of this was key, Christine explains:
“We realized that just one book wasn’t enough…. There needed to be an organization. We actually incorporated the organization before the book came out. And in the back of the book we gave our postal address…. Because we knew people were going to be very excited about these ideas.”
One of the concerns to which the nanotech duo gave particular attention in Foresight was responsible use. They both smartly and earnestly anticipated concerns about the potential misuse of nanotechnology, amidst its many benefits. Foresight then became a forum and a mechanism for information exchange and ongoing research into the entire spectrum of consequences and applications, kept flexible enough to address related technologies like artificial intelligence and space technology.
For Christine, who has been an Alcor member since the mid-80s, nanotechnology and cryonics have been associated since college. It was then that she first became acquainted with Drexler and his earliest insights into molecular nanotechnology, which also shifted his technical view of cryonics in a favorable direction. Christine became aware of cryonics during this shift, finding it quite sensible. “When you’re nineteen and someone explains something to you, and it sounds logical and technically correct, you’re not really surprised at that age. Everything is new at that point.” Many on first learning about cryonics have reacted negatively, but not her. “To me, cryonics is sort of an obvious thing. With sufficiently advanced repair abilities, it could work. My early introduction to this made it harder for me to see why people have these emotional reactions. I didn’t have to go through that myself. I skipped that stage.”
Nevertheless, Christine has a track record of success in communications. A simple YouTube search under her name yields several videos of nanotechnology and longevity lectures and presentations. In fact, it was her sensitivity to the nuance and perception of language that led her to coin the term “open source software.” This indirectly stemmed from her experience with the Xanadu hypertext project, a collaboration by a group of forwardlooking thinkers initially scattered about the country (but later centered in the Bay Area) who were working on a technology similar to the World Wide Web. Xanadu was proprietary, but the software that ultimately caught on was instead publicly available and modifiable. The licensing model for such software was frequently referred to as “free,” but as Christine recalls:
“I had seen, so many times, newcomers to the concept of free software becoming very confused by what was meant by the term ‘free’ software. People always assumed it meant ‘free’ as in price. But while that software was free in price, that’s not what the name means by ‘free.’ It means ‘free’ in terms of freedom.”
After several brainstorming sessions she came up with “open source software,” which is now widely used as a more understandable term.
Christine with the late Doug Engelbart, inventor of the computer mouse and Silicon Valley legend.
Christine with sci-fi author and former mathematics and computer science professor, Vernor Vinge
Christine’s communications strength isn’t just limited to technology. She has had a lot of success giving talks about love and finding a life partner. Drawing on examples from evolution and biochemistry, Diana Kirschner’s book, Love in 90 Days: The Essential Guide to Finding Your Own True Love, and her own experience finding love in 115 days—just a few weeks off from Kirschner’s estimate!—she guides people—women in particular—through the meaning and implications of cuckoldry, oxytocin, and dopamine in heterosexual pair bonding. She’s written an ebook and hopes to find time to write a more robust publication in the future.
Not excluding the health benefits of a long-term love, well-being in general is an area of ever-increasing passion for Christine. Chronic stress is one area of particular interest, spurred by research into vagus nerve stimulation, which can “basically turn off the fight or flight mechanism of the body and turn on the healing mechanism of the body.” A part of the parasympathetic nervous system, many studies have drawn a connection between it and your health and longevity. To this end, she regularly meditates, practices yoga, and sings. Yes! Singing is, according to Christine, a great social (extra health points for that) way to stimulate the vagus nerve. “Right now, I’m learning ‘Just in Time,’ and ‘I’m in the Mood for Love.’ I would like to get good at ‘I’m in the Mood for Love,’ because my husband really likes that song.”
Christine with her daily tea—another longevity strategy or at least a stress-reducer.
Hot tip from Christine! Driving bumper cars is a great way to de-stress.
The value of sleep in the stress and overall health equation is also important to Christine. She wears an Oura ring every night. A waterproof Finnish sleeping ring made of high-tech ceramics, it uses a pulse oximeter and other sensors to give very detailed information on your sleep. “I have found it super helpful,” she reports.
Amidst all these successful experiments, Christine shares less enthusiasm for the popular life extension topic of permanent calorie restriction. “A long-term period of calorie restriction over decades sounds like hell to me. I hate feeling cold! But it sounds like there are ways to get similar benefits without that.” She has found ample proof of calorie restriction reducing chronic diseases that impact healthspan, but is less convinced of its efficacy in boosting human lifespan. As to the alternatives with similar benefits, she has been researching intermittent fasting, and a distinct type of fasting that involves restricting one macronutrient at a time. Cold thermogenesis—regular exposure to cold temperatures—is another area of inquiry.
As is abundantly clear, “Increased healthspan is kind of a routine thing for me to be interested in,” says Christine. “You go to your dentist, you do your life extension stuff.”
Christine shows off her stem cells now stored at Forever Labs.
Looking to the future of cryonics, as the co-founder of an institute with “foresight” in the title is wont to do, Christine hopes the next five to ten years at Alcor will focus on recruitment with a futuristic edge. She hopes for an updated recruitment book and perhaps even a video. Such resources might have strong appeal to the tech-minded cryonicists-to-be and the younger generations that cryonics has yet to capture. A commendable combination, Christine’s vision is balanced by a strong sense of sincerity and commitment to the field’s progress. “Promoting cryonics and then carrying it out—actually performing the cryosuspensions—and trying to carry forward the research is extraordinarily challenging. It’s one of the hardest things I know that people do anywhere, so I’m tremendously admiring of the whole team.”
To read more about Christine’s work in nanotechnology and the Foresight Institute, please visit www.foresight.org.
Christine on a hike at Pinnacles National Park in Central California. Check out the “Effective Altruism” shirt!