189 of 207 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 2010
I was very disappointed in this book, and here's why: First the pros...Weiner gives a lot of pagetime to Aubrey David Nicholas Jasper de Grey. Great name, eh? He is a brilliant and colorful man who is an enthusiastic proponent of the idea that science can, and soon will, enable us to live virtually forever. Aubrey's optimism is refreshing. Whether it is realistic or not I am not qualified to say, as I don't have a background in biology. And with his elongated frame, gaunt countenance, slovenly dress, biblical beard and nonstop beer-swilling he is fun to read about. Another positive is the author's explanation of the basic problem: our cells are constantly mutating and malfunctioning, and as we get older the "mistakes" add up as the body loses the ability to make corrections. So far, so good...but here are the negatives: Perversely, the almost exclusive concentration on Aubrey de Grey makes this more of a colorful "New Yorker" type piece, or mini-biography, than a rigorous exploration of all the work going on in this field. There are snippets of what other people who are doing work in this area think, but these ideas and opinions are not examined or explained in any detail. The book basically comes down to this: Aubrey de Grey thinks that we will come up with a way to clean up the mistakes that occur in our genetic codes, and other people think it's too complicated or it's too soon to tell. But, again, we are not given enough of a rounded picture to come to our own conclusions. There is also a sort of half-hearted attempt to wax philosophical about whether it would be good to be immortal, but this is done in a rather cursory manner. For example, Mr. Weiner makes an assumption that if we lived almost indefinitely, we wouldn't want to have children...therefore, tremendously long lifespans wouldn't cause an overpopulation problem. He doesn't address the fact that we have evolved over millions of years a biological imperative to have children. Why would that suddenly disappear? Other seemingly important, related, issues such as diet (antioxidants), and why some nationalities live longer and have fewer instances of heart disease and cancer are likewise not examined at all or are mentioned in an offhand manner. Aubrey de Grey is a fascinating man and he does warrant a biography. But this book is supposed to be a rigorous examination of the science of immortality and, as such, it should thoroughly cover all the bases. It does not do so, and that's why I can't recommend it.
71 of 81 people found the following review helpful
As a biochemist, I once did research on aging. I wanted to know why the several trillion cells in our body deteriorate in much the same way that our automobiles deteriorate with age. The answer was that the complex systems for repair and replacement of cell machinery slowly, and finally rapidly, stop repairing and replacing parts. As a result, the cells die, and so does the living creature, whether human or worm. I suspected that the cause of this might be damage to the many genes controlling the repair and replacement process. Now, it seems likely that something of this sort is the case, and it raises the question of how long we can live if we can get the repair and replacement process started again.
In this excellent and very readable book, Weiner presents a status report of research progress on extending life, and he faces the question of living forever. In his search for answers, he has the aid of Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge University, a scientist who bubbles with ideas. I was fortunate at one time to be in an online discussion group on aging that included Aubrey de Grey. The stimulation he brought was amazing. Now, you can read some of his thinking, as related by Weiner, along with the setting in which it occurred.
Aubrey de Grey suggests that unlimited life is certainly on the way. His arguments are good, and I note that a growing number of researchers have concluded that aging cells wear out much like the parts of our automobiles. We can combat some of this wear by replacing vital organs, but the real feat is to get those defective control genes replaced or working again. Researchers are finding and working on some of the genes. As a result, they have extended, and even doubled, the life spans of creatures in the laboratory. Thus, much longer life is possible. Unlimited life does not violate any physical law, so it is also possible. We simply have to figure out how to do it. I learned long ago of the danger of saying that something is impossible. This was the case with space travel, and this is the case with immortality. Weiner does a masterful job of explaining where we stand on extending life, and the problems we face.
29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
on May 31, 2010
Humanity's fear of death has yielded many odd things. It has given us expensive cosmetics and odd potions (current fascination with "ionized water" is just the latest in this endless thread). It has given us visions of an afterlife, well-stocked with trout and virgins. But it has also given us the Pyramids and Keats, vaccines and Brahms, sanitation and farming. As Jonathan Weiner's readable book demonstrates, we've been just a few years from a cure--for millennia.
As we've come to learn more about evolution and the processes of life, we have begun to gain some insight into the mechanisms of aging. It is deeply built into the way our biology works. Four billion years of evolution mean that there's a lot to untangle. Weiner takes us into the labs of many biologists and experimentalists, each working on one small key to the puzzle. He examines the bitter debate between the "skin-ins", those who study biology at the molecular level, and the "skin-outs", who study the emergent properties of complete ecosystems. All of this is written in an engaging style that will inform any reader with a modicum of scientific curiosity. Weiner knows his literature as well, often referring to relevant passages in ancient Chinese and Indian poetry or classical Western thought. I really AM going to have to get to Dante some day.
Most scientists are modest in characterizing their own knowledge and the impact it will have on human lifespans. A few more years might be a reasonable expectation. But there are those (as there always have been) who assume that we can achieve virtual immortality with just a few small steps. In Weiner's book, the stand-in for this point of view is a man named Aubrey de Grey.
De Grey is a genuine character, of a type that's somewhat familiar to me. An English software engineer, now in middle age, with an enormous beard and an endless thirst for beer, de Grey directs a society dedicated to immortality. He's an academic type with a lot of brains and very little true accomplishment. He's an autodidact in the field of biology, but without the patience or training to actually test his own ideas. This doesn't not stop him from spewing opinions, occasionally (remember the parable of the blind squirrel finding the nut) unearthing something of interest. Since he is an engineer, he displays the engineer's attitude: just the right line of code or the right-sized bolt and we're done. He's an interesting, if eventually tiresome, antagonist.
Jonathan Weiner has given us a book that's equal part science and philosophy. Our world would be vastly different without the stimulus of personal demise (for a companion reader I'd recommend Death & Sex by Tyler Volk). Perhaps the strongest example of this was given--unwittingly--by Aubrey de Grey. He speculated that once aging was eliminated, then death would come only by accidental cause. We'd be afraid to get in a car or to climb a mountain. With immortality, our fear of death would only increase. What kind of a life is that?
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
This book is an example of what might be called "personality-driven science writing." Jonathan Weiner seems to be terrified that, if he were to simply present readers with the science--the theories, the experiments, the facts, the figures--his readers would be passing out in droves from boredom. So instead he tries to keep things lively by talking about the people behind the science. And I don't just mean a bit of biographic background and a funny anecdote or two. I mean that roughly fifty percent of this book's content is stuff about the scientists, rather than the science: Their history, their personalities, their clothing, their jewelry, their drinking habits, what sound their beer glass makes when they set it down after taking a swig ("tap", in case you were wondering), how they slur their speech when they've had too much beer, their facial hair, etc., etc. (Though granted, the beard of gerontology researcher Aubrey de Gray is of such epic proportions that it would probably warrant some mention in any book on the subject of aging research.)
The corollary to this is the frequency with which the word "I" appears in the book. Weiner tells you in great detail about his personal interactions with this and that researcher, what he thought of them, his reaction to the place where he interviewed them, what he thought when they said this, what he felt when they said that, etc., etc.
Personally, when I read a science book, I want it to have science in it. Just the facts, ma'am. Maybe I'm out of date in that regard. Maybe the best way to sell a science book these days is to make it into a veritable video game of flashing blue eyes, dialog in slurred-speech dialect, tapping beer glasses and what-I-said-to-Aubrey-when-he-said-this-to-me.
When Weiner does get around to talking science, he does a good job of it. He describes the research and the sundry theories relating to the study of aging in neat and clear language. I remember his description of the mitochondrial free radical theory of aging as being particularly well done.
A long section of the book is given over to describing various thoughts around evolution as it relates to aging. The current majority view seems to be that, once a creature has reached maturity and reproduced, it has achieved "success" as far as evolution is concerned, so evolution can't play much of a role in improving longevity past the age of reproduction. As Weiner eloquently puts it, referring to the "blind watchmaker" that is the evolutionary process, "there is a place where the watchmaker cannot reach, a place where the watchmaker's fingers cannot touch. That is the desolate place we call old age." That's some nice writing there. I only wish there was more of that, and less tapping of beer glasses.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2010
Death. Pair it with taxes, and you have a veritable axis of inevitability. Unless, of course, there is some way around it. Like the real people in Long For This World are trying to do, despite the existence of an extremely long track record of failed attempts to establish that ever-elusive goal as a reality: eternal life here on earth, for everyone. It's true that the human lifespan has been rising fast over the past few centuries, but Jonathan Weiner notes that this has much more to do with advances in public health, sanitation, and diet than with any sort of medical remedy.
Weiner's book is provocative and fascinating, and sometimes dazzling. There is a chapter where he runs down the different theories why we deteriorate as we age, which seems to alternate between the more pessimistic take that after we pass on our genes our body doesn't really need to keep itself up any more, while the more optimistic take is simply that evolution doesn't apply to the process since you can't really select for traits that manifest themselves after we pass on our genes. The book's central narrative centers around an amateur (but highly knowledgeable) scientist named Aubrey de Gray, whose approach to stopping aging involves cleaning out the (literal) gunk that accumulates in all our cells. Weiner proves a capable explicator of the very complicated science behind all this, and Gray is a fascinating figure whose goals are undoubtedly compelling and attractive, but whose personal vision of what would happen with eternal life (he sees a future where children are a rarity, for example) would probably leave most readers cold. Gray doesn't seem too worried about things like wars, plagues, and other existential horrors that could often cannot be foreseen. And while Gray suggests many actionable items that seem meritorious, his theories are far from uncontested.
All in all, though, the book gives a great overview of the history, context and science involved in one of humanity's longest-running ventures. Weiner's book ultimately takes the form of a meditation on life and death, which acknowledges the existential questions that are inevitable for all self-aware living things. It's fascinating, hopeful and a little scary, often at once. And it's worth your time.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
This book about "the strange science of immortality" feature a mix, or perhaps a mess, of various information on gerontology (science of aging), a somewhat fawning semi biography of a leading gerontologist (Aubrey de Grey), and musings and opinions on mortality and immortality. I felt that the book was not well organized and to some degree a waste of my time.
While reading this book I sometimes got the feeling that there is not that much interesting to say in the field of gerontology and that the author therefore worked in loads of filler material. I should say I do not believe that is the case. Even though the book contains some interesting information, the problem is that it is not well organized. In addition the sometimes idiotic and somewhat uninteresting musings, opinions, amateur philosophy, speculation, as well as the life stories of scientists (mostly Aubrey de Grey) often overshadowed the Science.
The author explains how single cell organisms in one sense live for ever and that some primitive multi-cell organisms, for example the Hydra, in theory can go on living for ever. There are a lot of possible reasons as to why our more complex bodies' age. In the wild animals (and presumably humans) don't live that long, due natural circumstances (accidents, disease, starvation, etc). For example, only 6% of the squirrels live beyond four years in the wild even though they can live to the age of 20 in the Zoo. Since Mother Nature would kill off most of us before we reach old age why would our bodies spend energy on keeping our cells in good repair for ever? Basically, there was no evolutionary pressure towards extending life.
The book gives the reader some explanation of the internal working of cells and how deterioration happens and is partially prevented by cell. In one chapter the author sets out to describe Aubrey de Grey's the Seven Deadly Things that causes our bodies' to age and die (intercellar aggregates, extra cellular aggregates, mitochondrial mutations, extracellular crosslinks, cell loss, cell senescence, and cancer). Unfortunately he only clearly identifies three of them in that chapter, and he later mentions that cancer is one of them. He essentially touches upon all of them at one point or another but not as one of the "deadly things". This is in my opinion an example of the disorganization of the book.
As mentioned another thing that annoyed me was the fawning semi-biography of Aubrey de Grey. Aubrey de Grey is an optimist and optimists often get all the attention of the media. However, in my experience unjustified optimism can ruin the reputation of a scientific field. This has happened many times already. The author questions Aubrey de Grey's optimism at the end of the book but a better approach would have been to include the opinions of many scientists without telling us their life stories or too much about their personalities.
I should say that I might still have considered this a decent book because it contains some interesting information, and except for the disorganization it is overall well written. However, what made this book not worth reading for me were the random musings on death and immortality by various people that the author included in the book. He presents quotes and opinions by ancient philosophers, religious leaders, scientists, movie producers, and discusses topics like the desirability of immortality at length. I found this stuff to be just tedious.
With some re-organization and the removal of most of the author's musings on immortality and the removal of at least some of the fawning semi-biography of Aubrey de Grey this could have been a good book. As it is written I cannot recommend it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
There are many things I liked about Jonathan Weiner's book LONG FOR THIS WORLD: THE STRANGE SCIENCE OF IMMORTALITY and given our obsession with lengthening our life spans he asks and answers a lot of interesting questions in the book. The flaw of the book is that the book seems more like a character study of Aubrey de Grey a pivotal researcher in the race against our own mortality. I will admit I was looking for a bit more beyond the circle of de Grey's supporters and for a more complete overview of our search for longer life spans which extends much further back than the 21st or 20th century. I felt that Weiner should have given us a broader view of the history (successes and failures) of our attempts to lengthen our lifespan.
LONG FOR THIS WORLD has a fascinating premise but it seems that the author wants to put his toe in a wide variety of topics without focusing with depth on one or the other and that the core of the book revolves around people like de Grey vs. while the other issues and questions tackled in the book are truly nothing more than side dishes that don't get the attention they deserve.
While "LONG FOR THIS WORLD" does tackle a lot of difficult questions and provides us with a slight overview of the desperate attempts to extend our time on this planet, it does justice to none of them because the focus of the is too broad given the length of the book and when the author does focus his focus suddenly becomes too narrow to give us a true understanding of those out there doing the research and their theories, etc.
Weiner's writing style is clear and concise. One of his strengths is being able to break down complex subjects into easily digestable bites of information that can make an impact which makes the approach he took with this book even more frustrating. The definitive book on the subject still awaits to be done and while Weiner provides good information in his book, this isn't it.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Jonathan Weiner's "Long for this World" immediately hooked me in the opening chapter as the author neatly packaged his exploration on the science of immortality with his immediate setting in an English pub called the Eagle in Cambridge, chatting with the Englishman Aubrey de Gray in the same place Watson and Crick first announced their discovery of DNA. Mr. Weiner uses the age of the pub as a yardstick for mortality, relating what may have been happening there at different historical points along the search for longer life.
Aubrey de Gray is the focus of the book, and his theories and personality set the tone for the rest of the text. Other scientists, researchers, and historical figures are juxtaposed to provide their opinions and theories, and Mr. Weiner uses various historical and mythological icons to knot the threads of the book together (e.g. the Phoenix, the hydra).
This look at the science and research that both supports and pooh-poohs the viability of the field of gerontology start to splinter about midway through the book, and I struggled with the constant shifts from one theme and theory to the next. The author strives to convey these notions in an everyman vernacular, but after awhile, his overuse of certain terms--junk, for instance, to describe byproducts of cellular metabolism--becomes grating. So, too, do many of the historical references which seem almost remnants from research that end up as accoutrements rather than integral elements in the book.
Theory and esoteric approaches to longevity have always been a fascinating subject, and these more or less fringe concepts do merit study and comment but with at least an acknowledgment that various public health initiatives such as immunizations, clean water and safer food, improved worker safety, and tobacco control are the fundamental reasons our life expectancies have greatly increased during the last century.
The book ends where it begins, bookended by that same conversation at the Eagle. I now know quite a bit about Dr. de Gray and the field of longevity research and some of its key figures. But this book did not make me feel compelled to learn more at this time.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
I'm very scientifically oriented and always demand lots of detailed explanations of the whys of any process from physiological, pharmacological, histological, and anatomical cocerns at the very least. This book fails miserably in that respect in that it's not detailed enough in the science. It doesn't provide nearly enough scientific info as to what is being done to further "immortality", what you as the reader can do, and why it works from the standpoints I just mentioned (encompassing a holistic quality as well). Sure, there's some major examples of famous case studies, some decades old. However, it's not enough for someone like myself who constantly looks for and scrutinizes new scientific information on issues with respect to cellular aging in detail.
BUT, I do believe this book is quite entertaining for the person who doesn't want to concern himself with all the details and wants a very general interesting overview of this field. In this respect the book does succeed, and how much so. I read it in two days simply because of that fact. It's entertaining. One criticism is the heavy focus on one man: Aubrey De Grey. This is a man who has masterminded the art of marketing oneself. And while his abilites in this field are far ahead of my own, I question (as many other scientists) whether he's even remotely qualified or even knowledgeable enough to suggest what he does in this book to be of truth. Hence, please read this with care (the author does a good job of pointing this out).
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Unlike his The Beak of the Finch, this book will never win the Pulitzer Prize.
But it does impart a serviceable introduction to the issues related to death and longevity.
For my part I was surprised that Weiner failed to include references to Nick Lane's Oxygen and Mitochondria anywhere in his bibliography. This is because both Lane books dealt mightily and thoroughly with the biological issues raised by Weiner.
In Oxygen, Lane discussed the basic processes of energy production and just how antioxidents figure in our demise. In Mitochondria, Lane took a mitochondria's eye view of evolution with an eye on explaining just why single cell organisms (viz: those without mitochondria) seem to be eternal whereas multicellular organisms (viz: those with mitochondria) seem to have exchanged eternity for sexual reproduction.
Had I had my dithers -- and being interested in learning more about this whole death and longevity issue -- I probably would have started with this book and then happily proceeded either to Oxygen or to Mitochondria. That's of course because this book is so much more cursory in its treatment of the underlying issues involved.
But that being said, this is still a good book and a serviceable introduction to what is a very fascinating field indeed. Depending on how successful these extension of life studies prove to be, we may have the opportunity to consider their findings for a long time to come.