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The Great Escape: Science’s Oldest Dream

When you hang around with great biologists, you hear conversations that change your sense of what it means to be alive. In the 1990s I happened to be present at a lab in California when a legendary molecular biologist began musing about a new interest: the possibility of a cure for aging. The biologist’s name was Seymour Benzer, and he was in his seventies. As a young man, he’d helped start the revolution in molecular biology, along with a few other brilliant upstarts like James Watson and Francis Crick. He still ran a big, buzzing research lab at Caltech. And soon enough, he made a significant discovery. In 1998, he found a gene that allowed a fruit fly to outlive all of the other flies in the fly bottle. It was a mutant Methuselah. I found this kind of research so interesting that eventually I wrote a book about it, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. In the book, I try to describe Seymour’s conspiratorial murmur whenever the conversation turned to Methuselah:

He used to talk about that fly in an almost shady way, lowering his voice, making it thin and quiet, as if he and his listeners were convicts in neighboring cells, as if he had to drop his voice and turn it edgewise to slip a scribbled message between prison bars.

It was as if he were saying, You know what? Maybe we can actually get out of here! Maybe we can plan the great escape! Today I know most of the pioneers in this fascinating and still vaguely shady science. I’m looking forward to hearing four of them speak at the World Science Festival on the panel From Dust to…: The Radical New Science of Longevity. They’re all important figures in the field. Michael Rose breeds Methuselah flies. Leonard Guarente breeds Methuselah yeast. Aubrey de Grey breeds escape plans, you might say. He is a theoretical biologist. He doesn’t do any experiments himself, but he’s a fountain of fountain-of-youth ideas. And a surprising number of his outrageous proposals have captured the attention of hands-on biologists with laboratories. Aubrey has made it his life’s mission to try to persuade the world that we really can break out of jail. If we will just apply ourselves, he says, and take his proposals seriously, we have a chance to live a thousand years or more. The fourth scientist on the panel, Judy Campisi, is an authority on cancer as well as longevity, and I think she is one of the most sensible and articulate people in the field. When I was writing my book I came back to her again and again as I tried to put all this fascinating talk about longevity and immortality into some kind of reasonable perspective. I quote Judy in the first chapter:

Once, talking with Campisi about all the controversies in gerontology, I threw up my hands. Maybe I shouldn’t write about gerontology at all, I said. It’s too confusing. It’s too soon! “Well,” she said, “it’s not solved. You’re writing about a problem that is not solved. I mean, if you want to write about a problem that’s solved then you can write about smallpox.” However, she said, if you want to talk about how a field has been muddled by human longings and blunderings for thousands of years, and has matured, then this is the problem to look at, because this is arguably the oldest problem in science, and it has suddenly come of age. “And if it matures even to the point where the field of cancer is now,’ she said, ‘if it can get to the point where cancer is now, it has the potential to change the course of human history.”

I think that is about right. I’m looking forward to hearing these four scientists talk and (possibly) spar, because they don’t agree about the best way to extend human lifespan. Nor do they agree about the field’s goals and dreams. Is the point of studying aging the great escape, as Aubrey argues? Or is the dream slightly more modest—say a cure for one of the diseases of old age, perhaps diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer? Are we trying to conquer death or just make old age more comfortable? We’re talking about one of the oldest dreams in science—arguably the oldest. It would be interesting to know where it’s going now, and how long before it gets there.

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