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Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality Hardcover – Bargain Price, June 22, 2010
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2010: With the bookshelves full of deathless vampires these days, it's refreshing to read about immortality in the real world for a change. In Long for This World, Jonathan Weiner, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, has written an elegant, curious, and personal account of the modern scientific search for a Fountain of Youth. The search for immortality has long been seen as a fanciful, alchemic quest, and the study of aging a mere biological backwater, but recent advances in both evolutionary and molecular biology have made the prospect of finding a cure for our apparently inevitable deterioration seem tantalizingly reachable, at least to figures like Aubrey de Grey, the bearded, beer-drinking English researcher whose impossibly confident drive toward thousand-year life spans is at the center of Weiner's tale. Is Weiner convinced? He's appealingly skeptical, and clear enough in explaining the science to make us equally so: if aging is a disease, it's at least as complicated to cure as cancer (and in fact would require us to cure cancer, along with everything else that hunts us down). But he presents the optimists' case with verve and appreciation, making their quest to exceed our human limits into a wonderfully human story. --Tom Nissley
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. The promise of eternal youth is both tantalizingly close and far-fetched in this fascinating primer on longevity research. Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer Weiner (The Beak of the Finch) focuses on amateur gerontologist and oddball visionary Aubrey de Grey, a charismatic motormouth who has won a respectful scientific hearing for his argument that we will soon achieve life spans of thousands of years. (His immortality program starts with the removal of a gunky cellular buildup called lipofuscin.) Weiner takes readers on an engrossing tour of cutting-edge research, while citing established life-cycle experts like Shakespeare and Yeats, and he has a knack for translating science into evocative metaphor. He tempers the "prolongevist" optimism with some daunting reality: evolution never engineered humans to last forever, the bodyÖs myriad modes of decay may make that goal impossible, and reaching it, he speculates, might render us morbidly averse to risk or even to having children. WeinerÖs erudite, elegant exposition of the underlying science is stimulating yet sobering.
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I'm fascinated with the ways cells turn themselves on and off, get rid of garbage, and slowly lose function due to aging. I think I had expectations, however, about this book going in that colored how I read it.
It's very readable. The prose brings in references of all kinds, philosophers, poets, artists, historical figures, etc. At times, the prose, in its own self-congratulatory poetic expression, goes a bit too far out of the bounds of science to make comparisons when explaining a concept. It sometimes just didn't make sense.
Also, I was hoping for a bit more "here are some current scientific experiments having to do with aging" and a bit less "here's Aubrey De Grey and I eating breakfast in Ravenna."
The book is more about Aubrey de Grey and his theories about the 7 deadly ways our bodies kills us and how to stop them juxtaposed with descriptions of his hippiness and his flamboyance rather than a more thorough treatment of the topic, which is what I wanted. Don't get me wrong, Aubrey de Grey and his meeting up with the author provides for an entertaining read.
However, de Grey has some theories that aren't quite practical at the current medical moment. For instance, his idea about using some truly potent chemotherapy to kill off all telomeres on our cells so that they couldn't reproduce and thus mutate/make mistakes and thus cause aging or cancer seems like a horrific solution to this problem.
Anyway, the book flows well, is quite readable, and the voice of the author thought-provoking (if sometimes a bit full of himself as much as Aubrey de Grey). Worth reading for the entertainment value.
As a disability journalist myself, one who hasn't fed the publish or perish maw with a string of mediocre collections precisely due to what I am about to assert, while I am sympathetic to writer teachers who take risks, mixing genres, Weiner just isn't very good at his job, and unlike the more successful Lewis, of Big Short fame, Weiner doesn't understand how to shape his narratives. As a consequence, the science, the portraiture, the moral dilemma, and the humanisn, all of this gets severely short changed.
Invariably, discussions about longevity lead us to questions about mortality and immortality . Why are we mortal? Is it not true that some creatures, like the freshwater hydra, are capable of renewing their life on a regular basis? And hasn’t our life expectancy been inching up from Roman times when it was in the twenties, moving up to the 40’s in 1900s and lately to the 80’s and a little beyond? Where does this progression end?
In this book, The Strange Science of Immortality, Dr. Weiner reviews for us the history of our thoughts on mortality with emphasis on recent developments. To be sure, scientists don’t categorically agree on the possibility of immortality but have strong ideas for and against the major arguments.
If we ask the experts the simple question Why can’t we continue to live non-stop? What stands in the way? Hasn’t our life expectancy been on the increase? What will stop it? The answers are surprising: One reason is chronic body inflammations which increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks. cancer and other deadly deceases. The other, more surprising factor is garbage - body debris! We rarely think of our bodies as infested with trash that handicaps its growth. Yet in fact debris infects our body from the colon to the macula and even into our cells. And, take oxygen, which is so essential to our life and wellbeing, yet this same oxygen works to oxidize our body causing rust-like deposits which prompt us to use antioxidants .
What then is one to do to live say, a thousand years? The experts think we should treat our body as we would a precious antique car: keep it clean, replace faulty parts, keep it polished, use the best gas, dive it regularly and safely. For the human body we need regular check-ups, the best medicines, healthy foods, regular exercise, the latest food supplements and replacement of weak and faulty body parts regularly. Would that do it? We’ll just have to wait few centuries (?!) to test this formula.
But, are we not missing a major factor here? What about the old criteria, "feasibility AND desirability"? For, who really desires to live one thousand years?! Some gerontologists believe immortality is not really a blessing but indeed a menace.
Fuad R Qubein