Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; The carriage held but just ourselves and immortality.
I have a morbid fascination with death. Let’s just get that out of the way early. I’m sure that as time wears on, and I come closer to the end, my attitudes will change. But I’m young and I do not fear death like I should. I’m not wise enough to know any better. When I say I’m lucky to be alive right now, I mean it. I can’t even say I come from a “small town” because the small town you think of when I say that is MUCH larger than the one I was raised in. It’s one of those little communities you either escape from or die in. Either of old age or the “proclivities of youth”. Around the 3rd or 4th time you regain consciousness and realize you’re still alive, you begin viewing life and death in a whole new way. Some people take stock of their life so far and turn inward. They diagnose themselves and their life and wonder what they could be doing differently or for the better. Some people “panic” and begin “living life to the fullest”. Cramming as much random activity into each day as they can. And some people, like me, start thinking they’re the frickin’ Highlander.
Death is the ultimate consequence of life. All living things die. Some in a day, some not for hundreds of years. Humans are the only ones who know what this means. The only ones cursed with the knowledge that existence is finite. We’ve witnessed other mammals “mourning” fallen companions but they don’t really understand what has just happened. But, for most of us, death doesn’t enter our daily thoughts. Time brings that appreciation. As we age, people we know pass away. Death became a very real thing for me when my great grandparents passed away. It also gave me an insight into the ways we deal with the loss of loved ones. Tears do fall but many people choose to celebrate the life and not mourn the death. I discovered I was one of these people. I shed tears for them but when I thought back on the memories with them, I was happy and not sad. And I knew they died with no regrets, having lived a long full life.
But what if it doesn’t have to be this way? What if we could eliminate death and live forever? That is really what we will be discussing.(Much of what I put forward has been discussed on Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman. I suggest you check that episode out. It was very good.) Not so much death but overcoming it. A tall task. Death is an all consuming universal force. We are all equal in Death’s eyes. Before we can talk about immortality we have to first find a way to artificially extend the human lifespan. Humans are by no means the longest living organism on the planet. There are tortoises that live almost twice as long as us. Trees still standing that were here when The Pyramids were being built over 4,000 years ago. One tree named Pando, is estimated to be around 80,000 years old(that’s ridiculous!). So why can’t we live for thousands of years? Genetically we are not much different than a tree. We have just about the same DNA, the same make up, we just grew into different organisms. But, if you go back far enough, man and trees have a common ancestor. I shit you not.
And we are made of the same stuff. So, theoretically, we should be able to extend out lifespans to ridiculous lengths as well. Perhaps without end. Many scientists think this is the case. Before we discuss some of the current theories for life extension, let’s talk about the process of aging. Aging is the name we give to the process that changes our bodies over time. All men age. Some women apparently stay in their 30’s for decades. Never question this though. Just trust me. Never question it.
Anyways, aging sucks. We reach our physical peak somewhere in our mid 20’s. After that we plateau for a decade or so. Two if we’re lucky. Even if you stay in peak physical condition you will begin to notice yourself losing ground to younger people. It happens. The joints will just keep aging and you can’t physically generate the force you could before. But, you’re in great shape so relax and just enjoy it.
You are a collection of cells. Cells age and they divide to reproduce and “keep the bloodline going”. After a certain number of divisions they begin to slow down. They become more sensitive to the stresses put on the body, lose much of their ability to fully regulate themselves, and you become far more susceptible to disease. Death by old age is actually a misnomer. No one dies of old age. It’s always a disease, an organ failure, a genetic unbalance, or something along those lines.
So now researchers are looking at aging as a genetic condition and one that could be “treated”. One theorist in particular, Aubrey de Grey , believes he knows how to stop the aging of cells and keep us perpetually young. A pathway to immortality. Aubrey’s theory seems pretty simple from the outside. Cells take in a lot of “junk”. to keep us young and healthy they remove that junk. But cells age and lose some of their strength over time and the junk starts to pile up and damage the cells. Here are the 7 damages De Grey believes matter most, provided by Wikipedia:
- Cancer-causing nuclear mutations/epimutations:These are changes to the nuclear DNA (nDNA), the molecule that contains our genetic information, or to proteins which bind to the nDNA. Certain mutations can lead to cancer, and, according to de Grey, non-cancerous mutations and epimutations do not contribute to aging within a normal lifespan, so cancer is the only endpoint of these types of damage that must be addressed.
- Mitochondrialmutations:Mitochondria are components in our cells that are important for energy production. They contain their own genetic material, and mutations to their DNA can affect a cell’s ability to function properly. Indirectly, these mutations may accelerate many aspects of aging.
- Intracellular aggregates:Our cells are constantly breaking down proteins and other molecules that are no longer useful or which can be harmful. Those molecules which can’t be digested simply accumulate as junk inside our cells. Atherosclerosis, macular degeneration and all kinds of neurodegenerative diseases (such as Alzheimer’s disease) are associated with this problem.
- Extracellular aggregates:Harmful junk protein can also accumulate outside of our cells. The amyloid senile plaque seen in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients is one example.
- Cell loss:Some of the cells in our bodies cannot be replaced, or can only be replaced very slowly – more slowly than they die. This decrease in cell number causes the heart to become weaker with age, and it also causes Parkinson’s disease and impairs the immune system.
- Cell senescence:This is a phenomenon where the cells are no longer able to divide, but also do not die and let others divide. They may also do other things that they’re not supposed to, like secreting proteins that could be harmful. Immune senescence and type 2 diabetes are caused by this.
- Extracellular crosslinks:Cells are held together by special linking proteins. When too many cross-links form between cells in a tissue, the tissue can lose its elasticity and cause problems including arteriosclerosis and presbyopia.
De Grey has faced some criticism from researches in geriatrics and regenerative medicine but he believes the two need to combine and look at this with a shared perspective. They just believe De Grey doesn’t have the tangible proof needed to begin serious study into this idea. And you have to agree with them. The theory seems sound but he has not shown them real proof of it yet and ,without that, you can’t really convince people to get you the funding you need. But I believe Aubrey De Grey. And I believe him for one reason: Aubrey De Grey has been alive for almost 150 years.
Now let’s talk about cryogenics. Cryogenics is the study of how things react to colder and colder temperatures. For many people the term brings to mind human Popsicles in tubes. Well, that’s kinda where they’re going with it. The field of cryogenics we will be discussing is called Cryonics. Cryonics is the study of how to preserve humans and animals indefinitely at cold temperatures.
But first, a story. A story about zombie dogs!
O.K., not actual zombie dogs but dogs who have come back from the dead. The Safar Center at the University of Pittsburgh has developed groundbreaking procedures in the field of “resuscitation medicine”. They study how to bring people back from the dead. Bu less Frankenstein and more First Aid. Injuries resulting in great amounts of blood loss most often lead to death. Your body becomes anemic as the blood, and with it oxygen, seeps out of it. The organs begin shutting down and eventually the brain dies of asphyxia. The Safar Center is working on ways to keep people alive in these critical moments until aid can be rendered or, in extreme cases, bring them back from clinical death. Time is of the essence though. Once the heart stops, the brain isn’t too far behind. If the brain is left for dead for more than a few minutes there is little that can be done.
So the folks at the Safar Center have come up with a pretty crazy technique using a pretty common fluid: saline. If you’ve ever given blood and plasma you will recognize it. It’s that cold feeling liquid they pump through you as they draw out the plasma. Saline is just sterilized salt water. It is often used on patients who are severely dehydrated and for many other purposes ranging from contact cleaning fluid to nose irrigation. For this particular experiment, a super cold form of the saline solution was used.
This next part may offend some people. The experiments were carried out in 2005 on dogs. 24 dogs of various sizes and breeds. They were drained of blood and filled with the saline solution, then examined closely for 3 hours. After 3 hours the dogs were given fresh blood and revived. Over 2/3 of the dogs were revived with no detectable problems. My heart goes out to the ones that didn’t make it but they didn’t die for nothing. And I believe them when they say they followed every ethical guideline an experiment like this would entail. The tests were a great success. Before this most tests had only averaged out to about an hour. Now they were bringing these dogs back after 3 hours of clinical death with no signs of brain damage.
So, how? Well the key is in the saline solution. By directly replacing the blood with the saline they were sure they covered every organ and every skin layer. The dog’s circulatory systems kept them in a kind of suspended animation even though there was no registered activity. So every vital organ, including the brain, had their deterioration slowed to a crawl. Once the solution was removed and the blood reintroduced, the body seemed not to notice that anything had ever happened. And for you dog lovers out there, the tests on our friends seem to be over. With this rousing success the Safar Center believes it has the info they need to get permission for human clinical trials. This new procedure could save many, many lives. Most especially on the battlefield where severely wounded soldiers could be kept safe for hours until help is reached. Another reason dogs are man’s best friend. Their sacrifice means your loved one may live through what would have once been a death sentence. So, next time you see a dog, thank them.
Now this is wildly different from the type of cryogenics most of us think of. But the complete freezing of an organism as complex as humans is still quite tricky. Due in part to one extremely complex organ, our brain. What we’re talking about is basically what yo do to a steak you wanna save til the weekend. You pop it in the freezer and thaw it out later. But freezing affects everything differently. Especially if it’s too cold or for too long. We’re all familiar with “freezer burn”. You fix food suffering from it and it just doesn’t taste right. It’s because ice crystals have formed in the cells in the meat and pushed and shoved everything around and it’s just a mushy mess in there now. Freezer burn is the basic problem with current cryonics. It damages the cells and just slowly kills us over time. Many human organs have actually been frozen and thawed with relatively little to no permanent damage. But the brain is proving a major obstacle.
It doesn’t help that we know less about the brain than any other organ. Individual pieces of the brain have gone through the process successfully but w can’t exactly tear the brain apart and put it back together again later. Yet. And it’s the yet that keeps the science going. Most of the science we see around us was first taken up before the technology to fully develop it was around. Right now technology leaps a level every 2 or 3 years. Cancer research from earlier last decade looks like the stone age compared to what we are doing now. The biggest tool to cryonic researchers may be the nanomoachine. Microscopic tools injected into the body to repair and maintain. If these machines can completely reverse the freezing process, then suspended animation is no longer pop-science, it’s a reality. The hope for the technology is to be able to preserve terminally ill people until a cure is found. A very noble effort.
Benjamin Franklin, in a 1773 letter,expressed regret that he lived “in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science” that he could not be preserved and revived to fulfil his “very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence”
But keeping yourself on ice until immortality is discovered might not sound great to a lot of people. I got something else for you. But first, a question: How attached are you to the human body? I ask this because the most viable form of immortality may call for us to leave our human bodies for more “permanent” accommodations. Here’s what we know. You and everything that makes you who you are is carried on electrical pulses through your brain. And that’s it. How those impulses turn to consciousness still escapes us. But it’s an electrical impulse carrying information. That we get. No different than TV and radio signals and we can move those from device to device pretty damn easily now a days. But the simple binary signals we send through our machines are nothing compared to the process operating our brains and giving us consciousness.
If we ever wish to transfer ourselves to another vessel we must first learn exactly where we are in our brain. Our consciousness must stem from a central point in our brain. One man, Professor Olaf Sporns at Indiana University, beleives he may have discovered that central hub, the medial parietal cortex. It is located directly between the 2 hemispheres of the brain and seems to be the starting point for many of the impulses we wish to duplicate. Sporns believes that if we can fully map and detail this area of the brain we may be be starting on the road to “downloading ourselves” into machines. First, though, we need to develop an artificial brain that can handle human consciousness. Still easier said than done. Again, our computers operate on a binary level. Ones and zeros. Powerful machines but still nowhere near as powerful as our brain. Our brains are currently at least a million times more powerful than the best computer out there. Quite a gap.
Quantum computers may be the answer to this problem. Quantum computers will not operate on a binary level. They can go from 0 to 9. A HUGE leap. For every bit a computer today processes, a quantum computer could process exponentially more. It can “think” of more solutions simultaneously than our current computers can. The processing speed would be greatly increased and come closer to being on par with our own brains. But quantum computers are still very much in the developmental stage. The most powerful one made so far is still a pale imitation of our own mighty processors and not much more powerful than current PCs. But the science is doable and quantum computing is matter of “when” and not “if”.
But maybe you love your human body. I know I love mine everyday…… moving on. So transferring yourself to a computer may not be that appealing. So let’s discuss one last proposition. Gene therapy. This is very similar to Aubrey De Grey’s process int hat we are changing things on a molecular level to extend our lifespan. Gene therapy is a reality and it only grows with each passing year. Basically what we will do is mess with your DNA and chemical makeup to keep you perpetually young. Kind of like going for a flu shot only your being injected with the fountain of youth. Cancer treatment is heavily invested in gene therapy at the moment. We know now that cancer is a genetic disease. It’s in you already and what draws it out can be obvious or very random. Cancer is a mutation. One of many mutations responsible for evolution. Evolution is a series of mutations. Generation after generation dies from it until one generation breaks the cycle and the mutation doesn’t kill them but changes them. Alters their DNA instead of destroying it.
Removing all this from ourselves will greatly change our natural evolution. We are entering an era where we will have full control over every atom in our body. An era where we can shape humanity into whatever we want. No more disease and no more death. But, the question does come up. Should we even want to live forever? Let’s discuss just what immortality means. Cause it’s not as cool as you think it is.
Here are some dangers to eternal life if we can’t find a way to work around it. Our bodies may have no trouble excepting eternal life, our brains are an entirely different matter. One of our brains many functions is storage. It holds our thoughts and memories. It also has a limit. Your brain can store a ridiculous amount of information. You may forget some of it but it’s still there, waiting to be remembered. You can go your whole life and never fill it. But what about multiple lifetimes? what about eternity? Brains weren’t built for that. The longer you live the more information will fill your brain and eventually it will fill to the limit. What happens then? Well, you lose memories. And don’t be mistaken, you don’t forget them. forgotten things can be remembered. These memories are gone. No longer in your brain. Whatever bit carried it has been overwritten with new memories.
That means that as you go along you will lose pieces of yourself. They will be replaced by new ones but the old you is gone forever. What if you were the only one in your family who was able to receive this gift of eternal life? The pain of watching loved ones die as you remain will be hard enough. Now imagine one day never knowing they ever existed. Not forgotten just gone. As though you never knew them. When people ask you what it was like 2,000 years ago you won’t be able to tell them. You won’t know and there is no memory to “jog”. soon information in your head becomes so disjointed that you may begin to form serious psychological illnesses.
So now you don’t know you ever had a family. You can barely recall anything past a certain point and you may be going crazy. That seems bad enough but there’s something else to go along with it. If you hadn’t noticed, your perception of time “speeds up” as you age. every year goes by faster and each earlier years seem further and further away. This too is a natural thing. Over a single lifetime it isn’t too terribly noticeable. Stretched out over hundreds of years and it will become maddening. If the loss of memory wasn’t enough to push you over the edge, a sped up world might do it. Imagine reaching a point where reality is moving so fast around you that you can scarcely interact with it. What was new is old before you ever even get it home. People and things speed by and eventually you’ll reach a point where reality just pops into existence around you whenever you can observe it. That is the kind of life you have to look forward to. A world you can never belong to and barely know. You and your fellow immortals will be alone, unable to really interact with the world.
Let’s say you get over that. Maybe you prefer a solitary life and chose to enjoy things on your own time. Maybe losing touch with the past is just fine with you. At some point you will realize that even though you are immortal, the universe is not. i twill age and it will die. If you are still around in 5 billion years you will get to see the death of our solar system when the sun expands and burns it all away. Several billion more and you can see our galaxy collide with Andromeda. Spend a few billion years watching the stars dance and explode. But, eventually, the last star will die. The universe will break apart and not much solid matter will be left. Only gas and dust swimming through an endless sea of invisible energy. maybe you’ll get lucky and witness a new universe being born some billions of years later. Probably not. So, if you can still live you will be in infinite nothingness. You will basically be dead. You can’t see, you can’t hear,you can’t smell, and you can’t feel. if you somehow adapted to survive the vacuum of space, this will be your existence. An eternity of nothing.
This is why turning over our existence to an artificial brain may be best. They can be calibrated to endure the eons. Our brains cannot. At least as far as we know. Science could change all that any day. So the question is, do you WANT to live forever? Do you wish to be there at the end of all things? Maybe it won’t be an end. Maybe we will have created our own stars by then. Designed our own solar systems and galaxies. Nothing is impossible. Only improbable. When someone hands you the key to eternity will you accept it? How will life change if we live forever? Would we still try to mate for life? If we’re still stuck on our own planet(though I doubt we will be in several generations) will birthrates be controlled? Think of visiting distant stars and galaxies. Time is no longer an issue. The only problem with a thousand year trip is finding entertainment. Luckily people are easily entertained.