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Impatient Futurist How to Achieve Near-Immortality: Wear the Right Clothes

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October 19,2011
Discovery Magazine

A cobbled-together, $10,000 suit can protect you from radiation, chemicals, bullets, and pretty much any other insult of modern life—including socializing.

Whether my buckle is beeping or not, my über-suit thus far offers no protection against the tiniest assassins of all: High-energy radioactivity such as beta particles and gamma rays can zip through most clothing to wreak havoc on cellular DNA. But not through Demron, a material invented by physician Ronald DeMeo (DEMeo, RONald—get it?). Convinced that there had to be a better way of protecting people in hospitals from X-rays and other radiation-based treatments and tests than draping them in 10-pound lead aprons, DeMeo spent the 1990s experimenting with ways to impregnate plastic fabrics with different metals until he found a combination that blocked radiation about as well as lead and yet could still be fashioned into more-or-less normal-looking clothing. DeMeo’s results were so successful that his nine-pound suits—which look a bit like Halloween-costume versions of space suits but are roomy enough to fit over my bulletproof vest and gas protector—have become the outfit of choice for workers helping clean up the post-tsunami Fukushima reactor-meltdown site in Japan.

Women at high risk of breast cancer can buy a Demron bra within the next month or so to block out the background radiation we’re all exposed to, and the bra also allows patients being treated for breast cancer with a radioactive implant to leave the hospital without exposing others. (I was ready to order Demron underwear to protect the most vital of my vitals, but DeMeo explained to me that testicular cells stop actively dividing much earlier in life than breast cells, leaving the former much less likely to become cancerous due to radiation exposure. One less thing to worry about. Well, two.) What could possibly harm me now? Oh, please. For one thing, a boulder could pin me down in the backcountry, leaving me unable to get through my Kevlar shirt to free myself by gnawing off my arm. Heart attacks, catastrophic shaving accidents, and other mishaps could happen when I’m somewhere no one can hear me whimpering semiconsciously. My clothes could still come to the rescue, though, by recognizing my distress and relaying my whimpering over a wireless network. That’s why my future undergarments will include the BioHarness, a special chest strap from an Annapolis, Maryland, company called Zephyr that measures vital signs like heart rate and skin temperature, as well as body motions, and relays any worrisome readings via a Bluetooth transmitter to whoever might be standing by with a cellphone or computer to help. The device came in handy last fall when 33 Chilean miners lay trapped half a mile beneath the ground for 69 days, allowing doctors to keep tabs on the miners’ health and to gauge their ability to endure the stress of the rescue effort. Should I find myself trapped in a mine 10 years from now, I might not need to strap anything to my body, thanks to Nicholas Kotov, a University of Michigan chemical engineer specializing in nanotechnology. Kotov is creating fabrics partially made from conductive carbon nanotubes (picture microscopic ziti made of rolled carbon atoms), which he expects could lead to garments that are essentially themselves electronic devices. In principle such clothing could not only detect blood, it could also run tests on it. And in theory it could look outward, too, monitoring for gases and other external threats. The biggest obstacle, Kotov says, is that he hasn’t figured out how to make such fibers laundry-proof: They decompose in the washing machine. “The best solution for now is to make them as disposable fabric patches,” he says. “We should be able to make them for less than 50 cents.” I wish the rest of my getup could be so affordable. A Kevlar bulletproof vest goes for about $700; a Kappler chemicaland- fire-protective suit can push $3,000; a top-of-line RAE gas detector costs more than $6,500; and that Demron suit will set me back at least $1,700. Add them up and a not-fully-protective, really sweaty, socially repellent multisuit will run me about $10,000, and that’s without tailoring. Of course we know that technology is continually bringing us better stuff for less money, so I’m budgeting $80 for the fully invulnerable version that’s just around the corner. Hey, my life and limb are worth it.

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