First (and least) let’s talk briefly about “immortality.” I have found myself forced, pretty often, to weigh in on the topic of lifespan extension.
Now, in Scientific American online, David Stipp speaks up for anti-aging research, proclaiming that the time is right to put serious government money into combating the universal slayer of all human beings, the “inevitable” decay brought on by passing years.
Dr. Stipp is correct in predicting that aging will be a realm for increasing attention from researchers. However, his optimism for quick results may be unfounded. He cites very iffy reasons to expect progress to be easy. Yes, it has proved possible to alter and extend the mean lifespans of study populations of flies and mice through various means. Rapamycin is one such trigger. Other researchers have achieved notable results by delaying sex and reproduction and/or via caloric restriction – limiting test subjects to nutritious but very-spare diets.
So far, alas, scattered attempts by human beings to emulate all this – (by limiting themselves to ascetic lifestyles) – have shown little or no appreciable anti-aging effects. (And some have been trying the experiment on themselves for decades.) I’ll be very surprised if those impulsive folks now dosing themselves with rapamycin will achieve anything, either.
Think. For at least 4000 years there have been ascetic monastic communities that would have stumbled, by now, into any “thin-diet” approach for 200 year lifespans.
In my article, Do We Really Want Immortality? I’ve gone into about a dozen reasons why our search for youth elixers will be hard and grindingly slow. Human beings are very different from mice, or even apes, for reasons that may surprise you.
Essentially it’s this. We have already plucked all the low-hanging fruit. Every easily-accessible molecular/chemical “switch” that could extend human lifespan has already been thrown! Because during the Stone Age we became the only animals to need grandparents, hanging around with stores of useful knowledge. Hence, we are already the methuselahs of mammals, getting THREE TIMES the usual number of heartbeats.
The mouse results consist largely of throwing the same easy switches for them – making them (the mice) be more like us.
It is going to be a lot harder to go the other direction. To make us humans more like gods.
=== Let’s Discuss Modern Art! ==
And now — for something completely different — here is a capsule review… more a set of impressions … from when the renowned scultptor John Powers escorted Cheryl and me through several Chelsea art shows, last October. Especially striking was the display of vast sheets of wavy, undulating metal created by Richard Serra and shown at Gagosian Gallery on West 24th Street. The title of the show was: “Junction/Cycle“.
I appreciate it when an artist compels shifts in perspective and this exhibit made me change gears several times. Obviously the forms imitate geological caverns and canyons of the American Southwest, river-carved and river-smoothed, sinuous and snake-like. I could almost hear western music by Sergio Leone while I strolled along! Only then my attention might shift-zoom onto the texture of the piece. Squint and you might feel you were looking at fine wood that had been bent and twisted and deliciously tormented into wavy forms, to suit the artist’s whim: a dead tree’s final life as display-testament, exposing its inner grain for admiration.
Whereupon the engineer in me took over, imagining the process that the artist used, squeezing warm metal through rollers at high, screaming pressure, rollers deliberately set off-kilter, at-once defying the prim evenness of science and industry … but also proclaiming industry’s power and flexibility. “These methods can do much more than merely produce cars and buildings, cities, ships and vessels of space,” he seems to say. Industry can be taught to twist, adapting itself and its processes for art’s sake. Feminizing its methods by veering from masculine-utilitarian linearity to a voluptuous, sensually and sensuously feminine unpredictability and curvature. “See what industry and metal can do?” the artist seems to say. It can turn out complex forms that seem organic. That seem to live.
My final impression came while looking closely at the scratches, lines and patterns that – from a greater distance – had given me a woodgrain sensation. Up close I could almost hear this metal groaning between the rollers, as the artist subtly added torsion or twist. And (I expect) tossed in extra substances to stain the friction-heated panels that emerged. He must have really enjoyed that part. I’d have liked to see the expression on his face, accompanied by sound — the sweet-torture shriek as both the metal and the rollers pretended to complain.
For John’s take on the exhibit, see his blog at Star Wars Modern. Thanks for the tour, John. And here’s to the kind of synergy of art and tech that opens up the universe of possibilities!
== Shallow Theology ==
And now, from the sublime to the… much less sublime. Okay, so the Kepler Planet-hunter Telescope has ID’d hundreds of exoplanets, many of them quasi-earthlike in one attribute or another, some perhaps even offering conditions conducive of life. Wonderful stuff and such exciting times! Ah, but now a writer for the Institute for Creation Research surprisingly reacts with honest openness, avowing that “this (any discovery of extraterrestrial life) would vindicate evolution and nullify creation” for “the Bible describes only the earth as being habitable.”
Ten points for unusual willingness to face honest tests!
And minus 100 for shallow theology. I know dozens of pros/cons. Shouldn’t he?
Many of the finest theological thinkers – Jesuits, protestants, rabbis – have opined about extraterrestrial intelligence, in the context of basic Christian doctrine. C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet posited that God might have many created innumerable intelligent species, but that only a few of these — notably humanity — fell from their natural state of grace, necessitating a savior. Other Christian deep-thinkers have pondered that perhaps the creation of intelligence always necessitates some kind of “fall.” In which case, Jesus has been very busy, visiting and preaching and sacrificing himself in countless forms to save vast numbers of worthwhile races who possess their own versions of souls and minds.
Or else… according to other, newer Christian thinkers… might it be behooved upon human beings to be the messengers who forge outward to the cosmos and deliver the good news of faith and salvation that originated at Calvary? You can see that there’s a wide variety of alternatives to the simpleminded (if remarkably honest) writer’s avowal that any ET life would smash the Bible to bits!
Of course all of these are deep thoughts arising out of a basic premise – Original Sin – that I consider to be grotesque and preposterous and, indeed, a most-foul insult to God, portraying him as a petty, vengeful little egotist — about right for a cramped, pathetic little cosmos, a mere 60 centuries in length. But no match for the deity who set in motion a vast multiverse of fourteen thousand million years and more worlds than any human mind could ever conceive.
While I look askance upon the entire worldview, which snubs the very idea of a capable and loving God, I do find it fascinating to parse all the sub-set ideas that naturally emerge from that mythos. Lewis and the others were anything but stupid!
Certainly the “let’s go interstellar and spread the word” Christians are more likable and bearable than those yearning for a nasty, genuinely satanic Book of Revelation apocalypse.
Still, even for those dim enough to want the sad-cramped “creation” while believing fervently in the (deeply wrong) notion of a spiteful God, even for them, there are so many possibilities and options. Alas, such thinking as sunk low since Lewis. Part of the modern allergy among the faithful, toward anything remotely resembling ambitious thought.
== Will We Abandon Outer Space for Inner? ==
With my new novel EXISTENCE I plumb deeply into the problem of altruism or loyalty in robots and AI. Isaac Asimov dealt with the issue by positing his famous Three Laws of Robotics… then decrypting over the years many ways that such rigid rules might go wrong. Now Swiss researchers have used virtual robotic simulations to gradually “evolve” cooperative or altruistic traits, by allowing robots to sacrifice themselves in order to ensure successful kin. They found “greater food-sharing in groups where robots were more related…. The more closely related the robots, the quicker they cooperated. It shows how general the [theory] is, whether you are an insect, a human or a robot…”
Meanwhile, to see where all this may lead (at the super-optimistic end) have a look at this essay by one of the smartest guys I know… John Smart… who believes he knows the answer to the Fermi Paradox or the universal Great Silence among the stars. That all advanced civilizations discover the unlimited joys and opportunities of Inner Space! Getting small. Whereupon any individual might access (subjectively) infinite resources and accomplish almost anything.
Well, anything except travel to the stars. John deems that a cold, sterile and fruitless occupation, certain to repel most sapients, once they sample the glories within. “How are you gonna keep them out in the sky, once they’ve seen InnerSpace?” In fact, I am skeptical of this explanation for the Great Silence. It is a version of the Honey Pot hypothesis… that something becomes so alluring to ALL sapient-techno races that none of them forges forth to conquer the galaxy.
It had better be a damned effective honey pot! Because that one exception… say a ship full of Hell’s Angels who despise all that cyber crap and colonize another solar system… could be the one seed of like-minded descendants to fill the star-lanes.
Moreover, this hypothesis ignores the high likelihood that sophonts will want to at least learn about alien races, other cultures, other ways and strange entertainments, far across the great vacuum desert. Even after committing themselves to vast inner-cyber realms, they might still send emissaries, of the general type that I portray in Existence – crystalline worldlets containing their own immensities, though only a meter or less in size and durable enough to cross the empty interstellar realm.
Those who are wise will not abandon the objective universe, altogether, but will find ways to reach across it. To embrace vastness, as well as the voluptuously small.