Michael Benjamin


A portrait of Michael by a subway artist in NYC around 2002.

Alcor Member Profile
From Cryonics September-October 2018

By Nicole Weinstock

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“A cat has nine lives. For three he plays, for three he strays and for the last three he stays.” Or at least, so goes the ancient proverb describing the furry felines that now nibble their kibble in every third American household.

While the numbers in question are read arbitrarily, they do hint at the cat’s proven ability to survive situations in which their canine or human companions would surely perish. It is a rather stunning fact that of the 132 cats that were admitted to Manhattan’s 62nd Street Animal Medical Center in 1984 for falling between two and 32 stories, 107 survived.

Michael Benjamin, a native New Yorker and fellow cryonicist, does not own a cat and has yet to fall out his window. But in his lifetime, he has endured several life-threatening health issues and an incurable autoimmune disease. One cannot help but draw some parallels between Michael and these cats. Curiosity only seems to fuel his resilience, focus, and zeal for life.

WHERE BAGELS ARE JUST BETTER

It’s no surprise when Michael laughs and says, “There was absolutely nothing typical about [my] family in any way, shape, or form.” His parents grew up in communities known for industry, his mother from Detroit, and his father from Queens. They both met at Columbia University, pursuing Russian Studies and Mechanical Engineering, respectively.

Mr. Benjamin worked as a programmer, physicist, and mathematician for most of his life, while Mrs. Benjamin went from civil rights to residential apartment management and executive recruiting to politics—at one point she was Vice Chair of the Reform Party with Ross Perot. Michael, their eldest of two sons, is very much the child of his parents given his composite interests in STEM and the arts, as well as his unrelenting spirit of inquiry.

Michael had shown great interest in science as a youngster. He used to read Odyssey, a monthly astronomy magazine for middle-school aged kids and precocious 4th and 5th graders. But a change in geography may have dampened that passion ever so slightly. While he grew up in New York City, attending a private school in Staten Island through tenth grade, his family was one of many that moved west into perceived enemy territory: New Jersey.

Evidently, the age-old tension between the Garden State and the Big Apple was no less then than it is now.

“My first class, the homeroom class, happened to be run by the physics teacher in the school. The first thing he did was the roster. Instead of me saying ‘here,’ pronouncing my r’s, I say, ‘heeyah,’ like a New Yorker. And he went into this diatribe of anti-New York rhetoric. And that was my first day, my first hour, in high school in New Jersey. Unfortunately, it also was my first real academic experience with physics. Needless to say, that year of physics with this teacher not only turned me off to physics, but to science altogether for about 10 years.”

Needless to say, New Jersey wasn’t a long-term endeavor for Michael. Though his parents stayed, he moved back to Staten Island within a couple years of high school graduation. What did it feel like to be back in New York? “Home, right? That’s pretty much what it is.” And of course, Michael admits with a chuckle, “The bagels were better, and the pizza was better.”

COMING FULL CIRCLE

After a brief stint of college in business administration, Michael decided to strike out on his own. For some young adults, staying the course is a challenge. But for Michael, it was defining the course. “I was clueless from the beginning of high school until my late twenties, as far as what I wanted to do. I did all kinds of things. I tried recruiting, I drove a truck for a few years for a medical supply company. I did all these different jobs until I went back to school at 27. I finally went back to what I knew I was interested in when I was nine. Physics!”

Michael started by taking classes at the College of Staten Island (CSI). While he had finally narrowed his academic-professional path, he experienced his first major health setback in the form of listeria, a rare but serious case of food poisoning. He was hospitalized for three days. “I literally almost bled to death. When I walked into the doctor’s office, the whole place got quiet and they called an ambulance immediately.... When I returned to the office four days later, they all came up to me so happy.” As can only be said by someone who’s seen much worse, he laughingly adds, “I guess they thought I was gonna die on the spot.”

The upside of the food poisoning was that it kicked Michael into a lasting healthier lifestyle. “I lost 100 pounds in two months, because I couldn’t eat. And I basically spent a year only able to eat chicken, rice, and shrimp; no roughage.” Now years later, he’s still kept that weight off.

After recovering from the listeria and redirecting his attention back to school, Michael decided CSI’s physics program wasn’t as strong as he needed. He transferred to Hunter College in Manhattan where his instinct was well-rewarded; he was able to participate in experiments out at Brookhaven National Labs in Long Island as well as intern with NASA.

Michael left a strong impression in his next role at NASA as an undergrad research assistant. So much so, that his NASA mentor offered to fund part of a PhD program, pending his acceptance. Michael applied to and was accepted at Catholic University in Washington DC, and was already three weeks into his new home when he learned that NASA Headquarters had made funding cuts that impacted his education.

Disheartened by this unexpected turn of events, he returned to New York to pursue graduate school at his alma mater, Hunter College. A year in, he got a fateful phone call from home. “My father worked for Lockheed Martin at the time, and he called me one day, and said they were having a job fair at 7am the next morning, 'So come down.' So I did. I had a 10-minute interview and they hired me.”

Michael commuted from Manhattan and Brooklyn to South Jersey—a two-hour commute each way, with the occasional night at his parents’ (who still lived in Jersey)—for one and a half years. But after some reflection, and what was surely a serious case of drivers’ fatigue, he decided that he wanted to return to the area of his real passion, space. He was eventually offered a job in a division of Lockheed Martin in New Mexico, which he gladly accepted.


Michael and his daughter in the late 90s at their home on Staten Island, NY.

WHEN AN APPLE A DAY FALLS SHORT

“I get to the hotel at night. I wake up in the morning. I open my shades, and there’s these gigantic mountains in front of my window. It was awesome, frankly, to see that for the first time,” says Michael. Though he did manage to break a foot on his first New Mexico hike, he lived and worked in the Land of Enchantment for two years until he was diagnosed with cancer during a training trip in Washington, DC. Concerned about the quality of care in the southwest, Michael decided to transfer back east for work and better treatment options.


Michael hunts for geodes in the Florida Mountains of southern New Mexico in 2006.

Within the year after his cancer diagnosis, Michael started noticing changes in his hand dexterity, a nagging stiffness. “I went to my GP in DC and he immediately said I needed to see a rheumatologist. One of the top scleroderma doctors in the world happened to be at Georgetown.” This was but a silver lining to his imminent diagnosis of scleroderma.

A rare but chronic connective tissue disease, scleroderma is the progressive fibrosis, or scarring, of the body’s skin and organs. The finger stiffening that Michael initially experienced is a common symptom of its earliest stages. He continued to work but experienced some serious deterioration in his heart. “I go to one of my normal doctor visits in April 2012, and the nurse that’s taking my vitals said, 'Why is your heart rate 130?' I didn’t even notice. So they immediately called the ambulance to bring me to the main hospital.”

After a barrage of tests, they found out that there were pockets of fibrosis in his heart, stiffening the muscle and causing electrical problems. “At that point, I probably felt worse after the hospital than before,” says Michael.

This initial discovery was followed by a cardiac ablation, but not before Michael took a good old-fashioned vacation to see if some relaxation would improve things. Unfortunately, the beach-driven week with friends in Hawaii was not quite as healing as he’d hoped. “I couldn’t sit down by myself and get up by myself. It had gotten really bad, and so I said, 'Vacation’s not working, so I need to take medical leave.'” His leave began in August 2012.


A sense of accomplishment lights Michael’s face during this Hawaiian fishing trip in July 2012.

ON LEAVE, BUT EVER PRESENT

Scleroderma is a known autoimmune disease, but it is still quite rare; only an estimated 2.5 million people have been diagnosed with it worldwide. And while medical leave is often perceived to be a time of greater latency, Michael used his curiosity, intelligence, and powers of observation to transform his leave into a vehicle for medical advancement. He founded the Global Scleroderma Initiative (GSI) to explore different technologies that might improve daily living for scleroderma patients and maybe eventually find a cure.

Additionally, he began to serve as a source of information for his own team of doctors. “I sit down and read all the medically related research papers I can find, and I go back to my doctors and say, 'What about this? What about this?' Sometimes I tell the doctors about things they don’t know about.” He even plays show-and-tell now and again for the medical students of his rheumatologist, a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Michael’s value in providing unique insights to the field became particularly evident during his 2-month stay in Bali. The six-month Bali plan was upset by breathing issues just a couple months in. He headed to Bangkok for better medical care, but the doctors simply couldn’t pinpoint the cause, so Michael took to his own research for answers. “Two weeks later, Google and I figured out what I had.” And sure enough, when he returned to the doctor with a desired list of tests and cash payment, Michael and the almighty Google were right. He had indeed suffered from pulmonary embolisms, FOUR OF THEM! “I don’t know how I’m still standing here,” Michael reflects. “It’s unbelievable all the medical stuff I’ve had.”


During Michael Benjamin’s stay in Bali in 2015, he visited the Ubud Royal Palace, also known as Puri Saren Ubud.

Those five years of medical leave also formed a diving board for Michael’s pursuit of other subsets of technology and futurism. Michael started The Science Mic, an online science news aggregator, discovered transhumanism, and unsurprisingly, cryonics soon thereafter. He began his membership with Alcor in 2015. “Death is not a requirement for new ideas to flourish. There can be an injection of new ideas and change for the future without death.”


Michael captured a quick close-up of a pin from his participation in the March for Science in NYC on April 22, 2017. He was accompanied by others from the NY Academy of Sciences.

ON MORTALITY AND COPING

Close encounters of the mortal kind have shaped more than one cryonicist in the past, and Michael acknowledges its influence in his membership initiation as well. “I don’t have any religious beliefs, and I’m 48 now, so it’s not time to go as far as I’m concerned.” He still has plans. Michael is embarking on a Masters degree in Pure Mathematics at Hunter College and afterwards, a PhD in Theoretical Physics. “The disease is going to progress,” he admits. “There’s really not much I can do to slow that down. It’s unpredictable. But, in the meantime, wouldn’t it be cool to wake up in 500 years and hop a shuttle to Mars?”

The level of uncertainty inherent to scleroderma is unnerving for most, but Michael’s character lends him strength in pursuing life goals regardless. “I was already...a non-conformist. I don’t fit in any particular category. That personality makes it easier to do things that you feel like you need to do where people might look at you funny. You just don’t give a shit.”

In addition to his independence, Michael called upon some literary and philosophical resources for support. He began reading up on Buddhist philosophy and meditation. “It had an impact on how I thought about my place in the world, what really matters, what’s important, what’s really not that important.” When it comes down to it, Michael says, “Some people want to spend their lives travelling the world. Some people want to do physics.” (He’s actually done both.)

INSPIRATION FOR THE FUTURE

Michael has begun a trial period of returning to work this year. He is putting his technological know-how to use, developing applications on an AI platform. While life is busier, he still finds time to enjoy family and hobbies. His 23-year old daughter and 9-month old grandson live just a short trip away on nearby Staten Island. And, being in New York, he has no shortage of resources to fill his love of both the arts and the sciences.


Left: In Times Square NYC, Michael and his daughter share a meal at Junior’s Restaurant (made famous for its cheesecake) in June 2017. Right: Michael and his grandson Grayson pose cheek to cheek in the Staten Island Mall in March 2018.

“You had all these great physicists at the beginning of the 20th century—Einstein, Max Planck, etc. And at that time, the humanities was a big part of education along with the STEM education. It was a 'liberal arts science education,' if that’s what you want to call it. As technology has advanced, STEM education has become more specialized and we’ve lost the humanities part of science education. The way I think about it, if you don’t have a wide breadth of perspectives, you lose the ability to look at things in different ways, which is essential to solving problems and pushing science forward.”

That’s one reason, apart from pure enjoyment, that Michael pursues oil painting and classical music appreciation in his free time. When it comes to the brush, he is a studied fan of the Cubist and Impressionist movements, with a distinct preference for Braque over Picasso, and Manet over Monet. His music taste showcases Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Dvorak and Arcangelo Corelli, to name a few.


Oil-on-canvas paintings by Michael: Above, “Quilt” (1988); below left, “Splash” (2010); below right, “Le Fleur” (2010).

Perhaps the bridge that unites his selftitled “liberal arts science education” is his reading list. The nooks and crannies of his apartment have the constant companionship of his many books in process, ranging from the Dalai Lama’s The Universe in a Single Atom, to Carlo Rovelli’s The Order of Time, to Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, to Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow.

His collection genuinely reinforces the future that he strives to create through his own example: “I would like to see a global altruistic society that focuses on the betterment and happiness of every human being, where illness is no more and suffering has been minimized as much as possible.”

 

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