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Longevity

No-so-certain death

13 years, 9 months ago

3201  0
Posted on Feb 19, 2007, 9 a.m. By Bill Freeman

Scientists claim that immortality may be achieved by someone alive today, but do we like the idea of living forever? Good money was spent right down to the 17th century in pursuit of the Elixir of Life. But the Kings and Emperors who paid for it, all died. There is that exultant shout in the most satisfying of all musical compositions, Messiah - "We are not dead, we shall all live," but that was faith, not biochemistry, and it looked to resurrection, a divine promissory note at best.

Scientists claim that immortality may be achieved by someone alive today, but do we like the idea of living forever?

Good money was spent right down to the 17th century in pursuit of the Elixir of Life. But the Kings and Emperors who paid for it, all died. There is that exultant shout in the most satisfying of all musical compositions, Messiah - "We are not dead, we shall all live," but that was faith, not biochemistry, and it looked to resurrection, a divine promissory note at best.

Now it seems, well not now, but within realistic prospect, immortality may be achieved. Eternal life has already become that fashionable thing, a project - remember the Blair Project? That went the other way - lots of extra dead people. But no, in earnest, a project, with serious research objectives and, of course, funding, immortality evidently is. On BBC Radio 4's admirable Start the Week, on Monday, the scientist advancing the case said that it might, quite possibly, be first achieved by someone alive today.

Do we like the idea? Fictional reports of immortality, like those received by Algy Moncrieff concerning the next world and Australia, "have not been encouraging." Swift had the Struldbrugges, creatures into their third century of mental senility and physical decay, Alzheimer's forever. Aldous Huxley, in After Many a Summer, has the fifth Earl, who had sought eternity through a course of monkey glands, reverted at 201 to a full hair-covered and scratching simian condition.

None of these horrors are projected by scientists working on the genetic chemistry for giving us everlasting life. Apparently the body stops aging at a certain point anyway, so that death in the very old occurs through fragility after actual cell decay has stopped. Properly organised, said this fascinating man, life might well be prolonged forever at say 29. However the notion of an eternal 29 year old dandling his great-great grandchild, before stepping out for a game of squash, is quite as unnerving as the life style of a Struldbrugge.

It would be like Gilbert's account in Patience of a toffee glut. "We adore toffee; but toffee for dinner? Toffee for tea? Even toffee would become rather tedious." The effect might be like inflation and its' printed money, much more of it but nothing like as good: too many people chasing too little space, too little air. Eternity would surely pall as readily as toffee.

There is too the little matter of global warming. A report I read three weeks before catching the life everlasting story, warned of the illimitable quantity of methane stored under the permafrost. Which permafrost - courtesy not least of those cheap holiday flights the prime minister finds it laughable to touch - is melting. Apparently, says Scientist Number Two, if the methane gets out in a big way, you can multiply the present yearly emissions by 20.

In which case, the first graduates of the eternity class can count on being done nicely to a turn as the Earth follows its own project, simmering and grilling until the newly immortal meet the newly uninhabitable. As Algy Moncrieff also said, "This world is quite good enough for me."

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