Thursday 16 December 1999

Scientific magazine

Pic of the day: As you can see, I've had a successful head transplant.
OK, not actually. The magazine with the picture of a killer bee is the Norwegian "Illustrert Vitenskap". And the main reason for buying it was the text in the red oval in the corner, meaning "Our children will be 130 years old".

Longevity dismantled

I have some issues with the 130 years claim, quite apart from the fact that not all of us have children. It is true that the average lifespan has increased dramatically in our century. For a while, it increased by almost a year per year ... giving the illusion that we were about to conquer death. But lately, it has stopped. The people continue to grow older for a while, because they have not reached their maximum lifespan yet. And we do have a baby boom of fifty-some years ago,waiting to enter old age. They are doing so richer and healthier than anybody before them. But they are going to meet, for the first time in their life, a reality that cannot be outvoted. Death.

The average age in the population is growing, but life expectancy is not. We have pretty much hit the wall. The great progress in the past was due to sanitation, vaccination and antibiotics, with some help from better surgery and cancer treatment like radiation and cytotoxins. Yet now the selection of antibiotics is narrowing, as more bacteria become resistent to the popular and safe types. Vaccination meets resistance as people are not willing to risk side effects when the chance of being infected seems so low. Of course, if many enough opt out, the diseases will resume their spread. And our understanding of cancer has grown to the point where we no longer expect there to be one single cure for all - or even most - types of cancer. In addition we now have the plague of AIDS to contend with on a global scale. Things look fairly bleak.

The modern lifestyle diseases seem harder to prevent than the old. People were fairly quick to stop emptying their chamber pot on the sidewalk and go for water closets instead. Not so the fight against smoking, over-eating of fat, laziness and abuse of alcohol and other pleasure drugs. People cling to these things - though there is actually a steadily growing number of vegetarians. This may or may not be a good idea, but at least they don't gorge on animal fats. Animal meat has a very high calory density, and obesity is growing to be one of the world's foremost health risks. (Ironically, a lack of fat during infanthood can lead to a higher reserve of fat later in life, as the body adopts to the fact that fat is hard to find and should be hoarded. Brain development also suffers - fat is the main component of brain tissue next to water.)


How come people are willing to believe in science fiction when it comes to longevity? One explanation may be the great progress in the past. Another may be the decline of religion and the growth of science as a pseudoreligion.

For millenia, religion has helped people cope with the fact of death. I'll not argue here for the truth of religion; I think it is safe to assume that all the religions cannot be literally true at the same time, at the very least. But it seems that religion has been important to people. In the past, most children did not grow up. And those who did, were often likely to lose one or both parents before they themselves were grown up. Death was commonplace. Today it is rare, abstract, not really a part of our lives.

As religion is waning, science is waxing. We have sent people to the moon and back, tamed the atom, changed the climate. We can talk to people anywhere in the world in an instant. Even a child has access to more information than the professors of a few years ago. Surely the mighty Science should be able to do something about ageing, too?


I've had otherwise intelligent people claim that there will be very small machines (nanobots) in the bloodstream and even inside the cells, repairing the damage to the body. So, who is going to program these nanobots? Microsoft? If so, I suspect people in the street will suddenly lock up and turn blue. And a Unix-based system is likely to end in a very ugly core dump. No, thanks. I'm not going to have nanobots in my body until I know that I'm just minutes from death anyway.

No, your kids are not likely to live for 130 years. But they are likely to live in the most interesting times the human race has yet experienced. That is not a bad thing in itself.


In utterly unrelated news, I dreamt this morning that a playful kitten talked to me. It chided me because I did not recognize it. I got the impression that it had been someone I knew before it became a cat ... like in re-incarnation or something. (Not that I believe in that.) This was part of a long dream, but only the kitten remains. Oh, and a less than decent graphic novel featuring Donald Duck and the Legion of Superheroes.

Today is a rainy day.

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