On Living Another Day

 

    Today, I ferreted out previous discussions of longevity research and put them all in one place. In the process, I chanced upon a website that I hadn't visited for a while. What these gerontologists are trying to tell the community is that rejuvenation is coming soon. Get ready for it. What they're are proposing is the demonstration, within the next ten years, of reducing the age in mice by at least one year (out of the 2+ years that your average house mouse lives). Of course, their work will be designed to carry over immediately to humans.
    Apparently, they're finding it difficult to get their message across to the public.
    I should probably emphasize that what these researchers are proposing seems to be different from the presumed cleanup of cells I've been describing that (I think) must occur when organisms reproduce.
    Many people may not want to live more than a "natural" life span. 
    Of course, the definition of a "natural" life span has varied over time. Two hundred years ago, plagues and consumption (tuberculosis) felled many a young man or woman in his or her prime. Many women died in childbirth. And today's average individual could take advantage of those tickets to an early death by simply refusing medical treatment. Why is it that I think that most people won't reject antibiotics, coronary bypass operations, or antiseptic childbirth even though, by the standards of the fifteenth century, such measures lead to an unnatural prolongation of life? Why do I think that everyone I know will avail themselves of the best and most modern medical treatment they can find, even though such treatment allows them to live longer than they would if they ignored the latest medical interventions? And of course, there will be no clear-cut distinctions between a DNA repair cream designed to partially reverse pre-cancerous keratoses and a facial cream that makes the skin look younger. Why do I think that women, and even men, will be as quick as ever to try to look younger if they can? My straw polls of the devoutly religious suggest that they want to live as long and as well on Earth as other, less-religious people, even though they're eager to get to Heaven and spend eternity with God and Jesus and their deceased relatives. 
    But...
    I think that anyone who opts out of an anti-aging program should have every right to do so. 

    But the bottom line is that rejuvenation is getting ready to round the corner, and most of us don't realize that this is the case. 

One of Humanaity's Defining Dreams: Unending Youth
    "Vita Immortalis" has been one of humankind's fondest fantasies since humans (but not Neanderthals) first began to bury their dead with grave goods about 40,000 B. C. Egypt's Old Kingdom built a cult around the immortality of Pharaoh beginning in.... 3,000 B. C.? Pharaoh was held up to the Egyptian populace as immortal, arriving from another world at birth, and returning to it at death by disappearing from the top of a pyramid. One of Pharaoh's royal duties was a dazzling display of magic two or three times a year for the benefit of his awed subjects. (The Old Testament upstaging of Pharaoh's magicians by Moses and Aaron, in which Aaron's rod turns into a snake, was important because of the role of legerdemain in shoring up Pharaoh's claim to divinity.) So eager were the Egyptians to cling to life that they developed elaborate methods for preserving their mummified dead, entombing them with jewelry and utensils that they could use when they came back to life. (Only their upper classes were granted an afterlife. The average grunt was doomed to die forever.)
    Most of the world's religions have offered, as their centerpieces, a chance at eternal life. The Amerinds had their "Happy Hunting Grounds". The Teutons had their Valhalla. The Greeks had Pluto's Underworld.. The Buddhists have Nirvana. The Zoroastrians had their heaven. And the search for an "elixir of youth" has been a dream since time immemorial. It drove Ponce de Leon to seek the Fountain of Youth, and was targeted by the alchemists second only to the Philosopher's Stone. Josef Stalin sought the prolongation of his life through Dr. Alexander Bogomolet's connective tissue extracts. But now, finally, youth extension---the real thing---is within sight.

So Why Isn't This Making the Six O'Clock News?
    To understand why rejuvenation isn't on everyone's lips, it may be instructive to consider similar situations in the past.
    When I was a child growing up in the thirties and forties, and a young adult in the fifties, space flight was the stuff of fools and mountebanks. Every aeronautical engineer knew that space flight was impossible. Only the ignorant entertained the idea. Why, anyone with any education at all knew that there's no air for engines to breathe or to push against in the hard vacuum of space! And as for rockets, if you make them bigger than a Fourth of July skyrocket, they'll explode in your face! They can't go more than a few hundred feet up, and anyway, in space they would have no air to push against*. Space flight was the province of science fiction, with its lurid "space opera"  magazines displaying scantily-clad women in the clutches of bug-eyed monsters, and children's comic books and "Big Little Books", featuring Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. On the serious side, once in a while, there would be an article in the American Weekly (the Sunday su0plement of the thirties) about Dr. Robert "Loonie" Goddard's prediction of a rocket plane that would take you from New York to San Francisco in one hour! 
    The only other serious group of rocket experimenters of whom I was aware in those days was the Long Island Rocket Society.


* - It always shocked me that supposedly well-trained aeronautical engineers didn't know enough elementary physics to understand that rockets push against their own exhaust gases, and don't need an atmosphere to operate.


    The first dent in this steel wall came in 1943, when the first V2's began to bombard London. Here were giant rockets traveling at a mile a second, reaching an altitude above most of the Earth's atmosphere, and traveling 75 miles to deliver a one-ton bomb on their adversaries. So much for Fourth of July skyrockets! (I was thrilled with the demonstration that such technology was possible.)
    Of course, World War II saw a cascade of science-fiction-become-fact. In the early forties, I had read Dr. Clifford C. Furnace's "The Next One Hundred Years", written in 1936. In his well-written book, Dr. Furnace observes that it appears as though "atomic power" will require the temperatures and pressures found at the center of the sun, and  will be forever beyond humanity's reach. 
    The key breakthrough that made "atomic" energy a reality occurred when Hahn and Meitner split the uranium atom in 1939, only three years after Dr. Furnace' gloomy assessment had placed "atomic" energy forever beyond our grasp  The first self-sustaining nuclear pile went into operation under the bleachers at Stagg Field in 1941, only five years after Dr. Furnace  announced that it would never be possible. And the first "atom" bomb was exploded over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, nine years after Dr. Furness' book was published.
    "Atomic" energy instantly became respectable, but space flight did not. After all, rockets still didn't have anything to push against in outer space, and it would take five times the speed of the V2 to put anything into orbit. Also, most of the U. S.' leading physicists and many of its leading chemists had spearheaded the Manhattan Project, so, of course, nuclear energy was guaranteed instant acceptance in the scientific community. 
    Although space flight was still a distant fantasy, guided missiles were an instant success. It didn't take more than an average imagination to realize that nuclear warheads could be mounted in big rockets to produce awesome weapons. The term "pushbutton warfare" became a buzzword.
    In 1950,. Wernher von Braun, published plans for "Crossing the Mars Frontier" in Collier's Magazine. Someone published a wickedly funny satire mocking his dream. In the satire, the author has von Braun saying,
    "Do you see that little light in the sky? That's Mars. I vant to go there."
    The author asks,
    "Why do you want to go there?"
    Von Braun replies,
    "Because. It's like a mountain. I vant to go there because it's there."
    "Won't that be pretty expensive? How much would it cost to get there?"
    Von Braun answers,
    "I estimate it vill cost only two billion dollars. That's less than $3 per man, woman, and child in the United States."
    "Supposing for the moment that you could get the money, how would you get there?"
    "I vant to build a very long ladder."
    " What good would that do you? What would you lean your ladder against?"
    "Nothing. I'm going to climb it so fast, it won't have time to fall."
    Would you say that these kinds of attacks are the products of minds that are big enough to impede progress, but not big enough to see The Next Big Thing?
    Von Braun also worked with Walt Disney and with George Pal, who like Walt Disney, made cartoon movies ("Puppetoons"). They began to educate children into the concept of space flight.
    During those years (1945 to 1957), it was professional suicide to evince any interest in space flight. Only a few courageous, young faculty members let their names be associated with such an unfashionable topic as space flight. Britain's Astronomer-Royal, the estimable Sir Herbert Spencer-Jones, announced that space flight would forever remain impossible, as did other leading experts of the day. And even if you could do it, why would you want to try? It isn't called "empty space" for nothing!
    In 1953, the "missile gap" began to reach the headlines. Our latest adversary, the USSR, was ahead of us in missile development, and we had to catch up. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM's) were the Next Big Thing. Atlas and Titan missiles were blowing up on the launch pad, as the different branches of the U. S. Armed Forces vied with each other to become the progenitor of the Space Force. These ICBM's would span oceans, and the lower reaches of the ocean of space, reaching speeds that could nearly carry payloads into orbit.
    In the middle 1950's, President Eisenhower announced that the U. S. would launch a satellite into orbit during the International Geophysical Year, 1957-58, and that the U. S. Navy would be given the job of developing the 22-pound  "Vanguard" satellite and its launch vehicle. In Huntsville, Alabama, the German team that had developed the V2 had a satellite ready to launch, but they were turned down. After all, it wouldn't look good if a German team were to outdo our own "American" know-how.
    The Vanguard launch vehicle blew up every time it was tested. Then on October 4, 1957, the USSR placed its 220-pound (100-kilogram) Sputnik satellite in orbit, with a radio transmitter on board that let the whole world know what the Russians had done. (You didn't need a radio receiver, though, to look up and see that Soviet light cross the sky.)
    The U. S. had been shamed in front of the whole world. The U. S. couldn't get a 22-pound satellite off the ground, and the Soviets had already successfully put ten times that much weight into orbit. Obviously, if they could put 100 kilos into orbit, they could certainly land a thermonuclear warhead on one of our cities. Obviously, we were losing the "Missile Race". President Eisenhower quickly gave a green light to the von Braun team in Huntsville, Alabama, to try to launch their Explorer satellite to contain the damage that Sputnik had done to U. S. national pride. Within two months after they were given the go-ahead signal, the von Braun team had successfully launched the Explorer. [This was followed by a string of unbroken successes that wasn't breached until the Germans had been removed from authority and the Challenger accident had occurred (followed soon after by the Hubble Space Telescope fiasco).]
    Suddenly, money began to pour into this field, and suddenly, it became respectable. (It probably didn't hurt that in the year after Sputnik, Dr. James A. van Allen immortalized himself in the field of geophysics by discovering the van Allen belts.) However, the Soviets continued to outperform us until sometime in the sixties, when the U. S. finally began to achieve some "firsts".
    When I was a graduate student in the physics department at Case in the upper fifties, I was considered to be on the lunatic fringe because it was known that I was interested in space flight. (In 1956, there was so little serious space flight literature that I was easily able to review all of it up to that time.) When I returned to the campus in 1962, after four years at the Marshall Space Flight Center, an enormous sea change seemed to have come over the campus. Suddenly, instead of a ne'er-do-well black sheep, I was a minor celebrity.
    So where were the "experts" when all this was going on? And what do you suppose ever became of them? I never went back to try to look any of them up, so I don't know.

Darius Green and his Flying Machine
    Space flight was a change that occurred in your father's or your grandfather's day. A similar situation must have existed in his grandfather's day, in the years leading up to the invention of the airplane.
    Heavier-than-air flight had been theoretically demonstrated to be unfeasible by that celebrated American astronomer and mathematician, Dr. Simon Newcomb. Dr. Newcomb had developed a theory of aerodynamics that demonstrated that blunt bodies present less air resistance than streamlined bodies. (Needless to say, Dr. Newcomb's aerodynamics is no longer in use.) Not only that: many inventors and tinkerers had tried unsuccessfully to invent powered gliders, generally breaking an arm or a neck while testing their Rube Goldberg flying contraptions. The best-known of these aeronautical pioneers were the Secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Langley, whose expensive flight models crashed to public derision, and Otto Lilienthal, who died in 1896 of injuries sustained in a crash.

Left: The unsuccessful 1903 final attempt of Samuel            Right: One of Otto Lilienthal's glider flights.
Langley to launch a piloted flying machine (nine
days before Kitty Hawk).

   The consistent failures of these and other manned flight attempts led to general dismissal of heavier-than-air flying machines, and to the popular song, "Darius Greene and his Flying Machine". The Wright Brothers' first flight was ignored by most news services, and the Wrights became the victims of one of the most effective smear campaigns in history. Eventually (posthumously, of course), the Wrights were vindicated, and have taken their place among the world's great technical geniuses.

    One of her readers asked Marilyn vos Savant if she thought there were anything upon which everyone would agree. She said, no, that there are many people who hang their identities upon disagreeing. You would think that people would learn from the past not to bite the ankles of, and nay-say the rare pioneers who see farther than themselves, but it doesn't happen that way.