A backstage pass to the circus of super-long life

The field of ageing research is full of characters. We have hucksters claiming that cures for ageing can be bought and sold; prophetic seers, their hands extended for money, warning that immortality is nigh; and would-be Nobelists working methodically in laboratories in search of a pill to slow ageing. Humanity seems to be on the verge of discovering this pill, but the story behind the search is as entertaining as the discovery will be revolutionary. These books chronicle the three-ring circus that is the pursuit of immortality.

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We are fortunate to have Jonathan Weiner’s take on the story. Long for This World is a brilliant exposé of the fascinating science that has emerged in the search for everlasting life, and the quacks, drunks and geniuses participating in one of the greatest shows on Earth. Funnily enough, it is difficult to determine which of those groups will eventually achieve it.

As an advocate for radical life extension, Weiner turns to Aubrey de Grey, a fast-talking middle-aged Rasputin-looking figure who believes that many people alive today will go on to live to 1000 years old or older. At first I thought Weiner’s choice to centre the book on de Grey would be a disaster, but patient readers will be rewarded with a beautifully told story about longevity science.

De Grey is portrayed by Weiner as confident (often referring to himself in the same light as Gandhi), pretentious (“I’m making so much difference that it’s important I don’t get assassinated”), naive (having no children himself, he sees no need for future immortals to have them either) and sometimes sauced. The need for scientific facts appears to be no obstacle to de Grey’s enthusiasm, though to give him his due he is not selling phoney anti-ageing nostrums and is a never-ending source of science’s most important currency: ideas.

The genius of Weiner’s book is in the storytelling, particularly towards the end when he asks whether humanity should be pursuing radical life extension rather than simply working to extend the duration of healthy life by a measurable amount. From where I stand, while immortalists seek funding for extreme proposals, it’s the practical-minded life-extension scientists who will make the progress. A quote from the late biologist Joshua Lederberg says it all: “How much immortality do you want?”

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Apparently at least enough to make the inventors of the youth pill plenty of money, according to David Stipp. Weaving together historical views of early immortalists, who occasionally laid a golden nugget of truth, with the modern science behind life-extension research, The Youth Pill details the rigorous scientific approaches used in the quest. Stipp’s central character is Harvard biologist David Sinclair, who is also a founder of Sirtris Pharmaceuticals – one of the earliest companies created to monetise longevity science.

Any time billions of dollars are at stake, there is a risk that research results can become exaggerated when the scientists involved are beholden to investors instead of the scientific method, but Sinclair and colleagues base their views on carefully conducted science. With such limited funding for longevity science, perhaps we have to dance with the devil to secure the elixir of youth.

The contrast between the central figures in the two books is astounding, and the stories are compelling and different enough to warrant reading them both. Someone will eventually succeed in this hunt for a longevity pill, and when they do, one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine will have been achieved. These books offer a backstage pass to the circus, where you can place your own bets.

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