Magazine article The Spectator

Death, Be Not Proud

Magazine article The Spectator

Death, Be Not Proud

Article excerpt

HOW TO LIVE FOREVER OR DIE TRYING by Bryan Appleyard Simon & Schuster, £12.99, pp. 307, ISBN 9780743268684 . £10.39 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

The title of this book, and the cover, which depicts the Reaper in a bow tie, look like they are trying to make you laugh. This is a book about the possibility of immortality, and, when you pick it up, you imagine fun being poked at mad scientists with their potions and regimes and freezers full of body parts. But it's not a mocking book, even though, by the end, you might wish it were. This is a serious, frightening, at times brilliant book on immortality. 'Death, ' as Appleyard tells us, 'is being attacked on many fronts.' Most people, when faced with the possibility of immortality, have two immediate thoughts -- first, that it's a good thing, and second, that it's impossible. Appleyard will make you question both of these convictions.

He has spoken to scientists who have studied the science of mortality and found it lacking.

They are not mad -- or only as mad as, say, Crick and Watson must have sounded, or Heisenberg with his proof that things change when you look at them. Of course, reading about people like this does make you smile sometimes, because challenging death sounds so naive. But soon you will be smiling on the other side of your face.

There is Bruce Klein, of the Immortality Institute, whose aim is 'conquering the blight of involuntary death'. Klein calls death 'the Silent Tsunami'; he explains that 100,000 people die every day, and yet we accept it. His point is that if this was an actual tsunami, people would get their act together. There's also Ray Kurzweil, who describes nature as 'dramatically suboptimal'. Perhaps most fascinatingly, there is Aubrey de Grey, the long-haired, beerdrinking genius who is applying an engineer's approach to the problem of death, and whose organisation is called SENS, which stands for 'Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence'.

Oh yes, very funny. Let's all have a good laugh at these nutters. That's how many of us will want to feel. As you read this book, your willingness to laugh will tell you something, namely that you are rather more attached to death than you thought you might be. One becomes defensive when death is challenged.

That's interesting, isn't it? Part of you is thinking, 'Don't you dare! Just you wait till Death gets home. You'll get the hiding of your life!' One is, in some ways, rather proud of death. Man, as Yeats pointed out, invented death, and it might even be our best invention; certainly better than, say, the internal combustion engine or the internet. Or immortality.

So how might we get to be immortal?

The science is scarily plausible, and Appleyard summarises it well. There are some moments, common only to the best popular science books, when, as someone once said of Richard Dawkins, the author makes the reader feel like a genius. The first thing, then, is the notion of 'escape velocity'.

This is the idea, roughly, that human life expectancies are rising in step with time itself.

So if, as a 46-year-old non-smoker, my life expectancy is 80, I'm quite prepared to believe that by the time I'm 80 it will be a lot longer. Think of the way medical science has crept up on cancer since the discovery of the genome a few years back. Think of the effect of three decades of stem cell research on organ transplants.

Life extension, then, seems possible. But immortality? Appleyard explains that true immortality, such as that enjoyed by certain fictional characters, is impossible. …

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