Living Forever: When Will We Achieve Escape Velocity?

Do You Want to Live Forever?

Sherwin Nuland, MIT Technology Review, Febuary 2005

Wandering through the quadrangles and medieval bastions of learning at the University of Cambridge one overcast Sunday afternoon a few months ago, I found myself ruminating on how this venerable place had been a crucible for the scientific revolution that changed humankind’s perceptions of itself and of the world. The notion of Cambridge as a source of grand transformative concepts was very much on my mind that day, because I had traveled to England to meet a contemporary Cantabrigian who aspires to a historical role similar to those enjoyed by Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and William Harvey. Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey is convinced that he has formulated the theoretical means by which human beings might live thousands of years—indefinitely, in fact.

Perhaps theoretical is too small a word. De Grey has mapped out his proposed course in such detail that he believes it may be possible for his objective to be achieved within as short a period as 25 years, in time for many readers of Technology Review to avail themselves of its formulations—and, not incidentally, in time for his 41-year-old self as well. Like Bacon, de Grey has never stationed himself at a laboratory bench to attempt a ­single hands-on experiment, at least not in human biology. He is without qualifications for that, and makes no pretensions to being anything other than what he is, a computer scientist who has taught himself natural science. Aubrey de Grey is a man of ideas, and he has set himself toward the goal of transforming the basis of what it means to be human.

For reasons that his memory cannot now retrieve, de Grey has been convinced since childhood that aging is, in his words, “something we need to fix.” Having become interested in biology after marrying a geneticist in 1991, he began poring over texts, and autodidacted until he had mastered the subject. The more he learned, the more he became convinced that the postponement of death was a problem that could very well have real solutions and that he might be just the person to find them. As he reviewed the possible reasons why so little progress had been made in spite of the remarkable molecular and cellular discoveries of recent decades, he came to the conclusion that the problem might be far less difficult to solve than some thought; it seemed to him related to a factor too often brushed under the table when the motivations of scientists are discussed, namely the small likelihood of achieving promising results within the ­period required for academic advancement—careerism, in a word. As he puts it, “High-risk fields are not the most conducive to getting promoted quickly.

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