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The Invincible Man

Aubrey de Grey, photographed at San Francisco's airport, created the Methuselah Foundation to support scientific research into extending the life span, oh, 900 years.
Aubrey de Grey, photographed at San Francisco's airport, created the Methuselah Foundation to support scientific research into extending the life span, oh, 900 years. (Thor Swift/Post)

"Why not simply debate with de Grey and let the most convincing arguments win? It is . . . our opinion that pretending that such a collection of ill-founded speculations is a useful topic for debate, let alone a serious guide to research planning, does more harm than good both for science and for society."

The resulting uproar was followed by the put-up-or-shut-up smack-down in MIT Technology Review. The upshot was intriguing.

"In our judgment none of the 'refutations' succeeded," Myhrvold, one of the judges, writes in an e-mail.

"It was a bit ironic because they were mostly the work of established scientists in mainstream gerontology who sought to brand de Grey as 'unscientific' -- yet the supposed refutations were themselves quite unscientific.

"The 'refutations' were either ad hominem attacks on de Grey, or arguments that his ideas would never work (which might be right, but that is what experiments are for), or arguments that portions of de Grey's work rested on other people's ideas. None of these refute the possibility that he is at least partially correct.

"This is not to say that the MIT group endorsed de Grey," Myhrvold emphasizes, "or thinks he has proven his case. He hasn't, but admits that upfront. All of science rests on ideas that were either unproven hypotheses or crazy speculations at one point. . . . The sad reality is that most crazy speculations fail. . . . We do not know today how to be forever young for 1,000 years, and I am deeply skeptical that we will figure it out in time for me!"

No Point in Being Miserable

Off the J Street food court at GWU, there is a cafe so metabolically correct that it features not only a vegan service bar, but, separately, a vegetarian service bar, which is not to be confused with the salad bar.

Seems like a good place for lunch with a man intent on immortality.

Not so much.

"I'm getting damn thirsty," de Grey announces.

What appeals to him is the Froggy Bottom Pub on Pennsylvania Avenue. "I like good beer, but I'm not really a snob about beer. I'm perfectly happy to drink Sam Adams, if that's what they have."

Aubrey de Grey is not interested in spending his next centuries miserable. He cheerfully chows down on french fries, heavily crusted deep-fried chicken and two dark beers.

So beyond the question of whether immortality is feasible, is it a good idea? For every Woody Allen who says, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it through not dying," isn't there a Ralph Waldo Emerson who asks, "What would be the use of immortality to a person who cannot use well a half an hour?"

Why is it, when you bring up the idea of living forever -- even if robust and healthy, not drooling on your shoes -- some people just recoil viscerally?

"It's probably the majority that recoils viscerally," de Grey says. "It's what I call the pro-aging trance.

"Since the beginning of civilization, we have been aware that aging is ghastly and that aging is utterly inevitable. . . . So we have two choices. Either we spend our lives being preoccupied by this ghastly future or we find some way to get on with our miserably short lives and make the best of it.

"If we do that second thing, which is obviously the right thing to do, then it doesn't matter how irrational that rationalization might be. . . . It could be, well, we're all going to go to heaven. Or it could be, we're going to have overpopulation. Or it could be, it will be boring. Or, dictators will live forever.

"It doesn't matter what the answers are. It's so important for them to maintain their belief that aging is actually not such a bad thing, that they completely suspend any normal rational sense of proportion."

But if people don't die, won't we indeed fill the planet shoulder to shoulder?

"The birthrate is going to have to go down by an order of magnitude," de Grey acknowledges. "But even if that is going to be a severe problem, the question is not, do problems exist? The question is, are they serious enough to outweigh the benefits of saving 100,000 lives a day? That's the fundamental question. If you haven't got an argument that says that it's that serious that we shouldn't save 30 [bleeping] World Trade Centers every [bleeping] day, don't waste my time. It's a sense of proportion thing."

So de Grey soldiers on, not that it is anywhere written that anything he advocates will work. His approach, however, does have echoes in history.

On Oct. 9, 1903, the New York Times wrote:

"The flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years."

On the same day, on Kill Devil Hill, N.C., in his diary, a bicycle mechanic named Orville Wright wrote:

"We unpacked rest of goods for new machine."


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