Doing the right things for the wrong reasons

Some time ago, I bumped into a short excerpt of a video interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Larry King. After I watched it, I was sadly surprised by what deGrasse Tyson said. Before you read further, you should take a minute to watch the interview. If you can’t see the video or can’t be bothered to watch it, here’s a transcript.

NdGT: If you could live forever, would you?

LK: Yes!

NdGT: [laughs] OK, We’re done of the interview!

LK: [incomprehensible]

NdGT: Yes! No, OK, sure. That’s an attractive idea, but the way I look at it is, it is the knowledge that I’m going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive. The urgency of accomplishment; the need to express love now, not later. If we live forever, why ever even get out of bed in the morning? Because you always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead.

LK: But why? Don’t you fear not being around?

NdGT: I fear living a life where I could have accomplished something I didn’t. That’s what I fear. I don’t fear death.

LK: Don’t you fear the unknown?

NdGT: I love the unknown! I loved it—You know what I want on my tombstone? My sister has this in her notes, just in case I can’t tell anyone after I die. On my tombstone, a quote from Horace Mann, great educator: “Be ashamed to die, until you have scored some victory for humanity.” That’s what I want on my tombstone.

Superficially, this might sound right, and if it does, I think it’s because it does one thing: It appeases our fear of death saying that there’s nothing to fear, and that death should instead be cherished as a motivator.
Stick with me, and I’ll show you why I think this is profoundly wrong.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a cosmologist. He’s written several books, won many awards, and indeed accomplished a lot in his life, just like he wished he would. That’s great. What motivated all these accomplishments? According to what he himself said, the ‘urgency’ of accomplishment was a consequence of the knowledge that he’s going to die. This is not the picture of a passionate man who loves what he does. Rather, it is more like the picture of a man who’s stuffing his face with whatever he can grab from the buffet before they take it away. To my shame, I haven’t read anything he’s written, or watched any other videos featuring him, and I know that I should. From what I gathered through other people’s opinions, he’s a brilliant man with a lot to teach, and I refuse to believe that the reason behind all his remarkable accomplishments is the fear of dying without having done anything with his life. Sure as hell he must love physics and science, he must be enraptured by the mysteries of the cosmos and all they can teach us. He must be deeply passionate about the science he has contributed to advance.

I sincerely do not doubt his passion. But what he’s saying in this interview is that his passion alone isn’t enough. If he could live forever, his passion about stars wouldn’t be sufficient to get him out of bed every morning and study them, because he could always postpone that to tomorrow. What kind of a passion is that, for heaven’s sake? I certainly grant everyone the right to choose how intense their passions should be, but if you ask me, a passion is something that, alone, is enough to get me out of bed every morning with the very specific intent of pursuing it, regardless of how much time I have left to dedicate to it. If anything, knowing that my time on this Earth could be limited makes me depressed, because it means I only have so much time to dedicate to the things I love; I only have so much time to express love for the important people in my life. On this subject, I assure you I need no special motivators to express love, and in particular I think the pressure imposed by one’s limited time is the worst of all potential such motivators. I don’t express love for people dear to me because one day I’ll lose them; I express love for them because they deserve it and I need it. That’s all the motivation I need. Screw death. If you don’t want to lead a life where you don’t accomplish anything or never express love for others, all you need to do is decide to love and accomplish and get to it. You don’t need any sucker in a black cloak and a scythe to push you; if you think you do, I argue you need to rethink your approach to life, and perhaps have a closer look at what you’re pursuing and the people you’re spending your life with.

Even if I was willing to accept deGrasse Tyson’s motivator in life as such (and I most definitely am not), I think he’s confusing death with mortality. They’re not at all the same thing. Not even close. Mortality is the ‘ability’—for lack of a better word—to die; death is the act of actually dying. Even if our life was not limited in time—for example, because we developed rejuvenation biotechnologies to eliminate age-related death, as we are indeed doing—this wouldn’t make us immortal. Death would still be possible, by accident or by diseases we can’t yet cure, for example. You would still be unsure if you’ll wake up tomorrow, and would thus still have this highly questionable motivator.

I suggest a better motivator, one that a man of science like deGrasse Tyson should appreciate. If we lived forever—or indefinitely, as I find more correct to say—we could accomplish much more. Instead of cramming all we can in our miserably short lives, we could learn for centuries and experience much more of what the universe has to offer. We would no longer be forced to choose between equally worthy goals because of lack of time: We could fully master one skill thanks to decades of practice, and then move on to the next, never afraid that our bodies will fail us or that the reaper will prevent us from continuing to enrich ourselves and the rest of the world. We could witness as science unravels the marvels of the universe, instead of dying thinking that there’s a lot we’re going to miss out on in the future we’ll never see.

Wouldn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson love to see what cosmology will be like in the future? Wouldn’t he want to live to see the day we become a spacefaring civilisation? Wouldn’t he love to see his great-grandchildren grow into adults, and perhaps become scientists themselves? Wouldn’t he want to be there the day we make contact with an alien civilisation? Wouldn’t he be even a little bit curious to see what’s become of humanity thanks to the very victories he himself scored for it?

I know I would.

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Crowdfunding against senescent cells on Lifespan.io

Today, Lifespan.io has launched a new crowdfunding campaign: CellAge: Targeting Senescent Cells With Synthetic Biology. As you may know, senescent cells are a major driver of a number of age-related diseases, and therefore a prime target for any respectable rejuvenation biotech platform. CellAge, a biotech company based in Edinburgh, aims to design synthetic promoters for safe and precise targeting of senescent cells, with the goal of developing senolytic gene therapies to remove them. Please, consider helping them with a donation—big or small, every dollar counts—and by spreading the word!

A matter of terminology

Words and expressions we use influence our thoughts more than we think. In particular, some of them are more prone to interpretation than others, or have several meanings that can ‘rub off’ on each other.

The word ‘ageing’ is a good example of what I’m talking about. The first, obvious meaning of the word is that of the passing of time; if you don’t age chronologically, then you cannot possibly age in any other way. The second meaning is the process of physical decay that nearly every living and non-living thing undergoes to some extent. I wonder, though, how many people have been (and still are) thrown off by the word and led to believe that the reason our bodies fall apart as time goes by is exactly the fact time goes by.

Arguably, not many people in the world know that there’s an ongoing process of damage creation and accumulation going on in their bodies all the time. Most people seem to just be used to the fact they’re going to look and feel worse later in life, and the explanation they can provide for this phenomenon is often not much more detailed than ‘they’ve grown old.’ After all, it’s only fairly recently that we found out what ageing really is about; when the term was first adopted, there was no apparent cause of ageing, and people were probably forced to conclude that ageing simply happens with, and possibly because of, time. I wouldn’t be surprised if on some level people actually believed that the passing of time is the cause of ageing; the process of biological ageing is habitually referred to with a plethora of time-themed metaphores, such as ‘the injuries of time’, so it’s quite possible that people passively learnt that what causes the functional decline of their bodies later in life is time. As a consequence, people might well think that the idea of ending ageing is ridiculous, since it would necessarily imply stopping the passing of time.

I have been thinking for a while that biological ageing might need a proper disease-like name, which it will hopefully get when it will be added to the WHO’s list of recognised diseases. However, there are more terms that I think are misleading; ‘life extension’ is one of them. While it is true that the medical interventions we refer to are meant to extend life, this expression can cause several misunderstandings.

First, ‘life extension’ generally pushes people to commit the Tithonus error: They’ think we’re going to extend our lifespans without extending our healthspans. This is of course impossible, but you’d be surprised how many people actually associate ‘life extension’ with ‘living longer in a decrepit state’.

The second, and perhaps worse, side-effect of the term ‘life extension’ is that it may fuel the idea that life has a predefined, ‘right’ length, and that trying to push its length beyond that limit is wrong. There is, of course, no such thing as a predefined length for your life: You’re going to be alive as long as you’re healthy enough to be alive. Still, countless times I’ve had the distinct feeling that people think there are two kinds of death: death by ageing—the ‘natural’ end of your life, which will happen regardless of anything, unless you die ‘prematurely’ of something else—and death that occurs in whatever way before the ‘natural’ one.

It’s a bit as if life was an outdoor show: If it rains it will finish earlier, but the show will come to a conclusion anyway, eventually.

Needless to say, there is only one type of death, which occours if and only if you’re not healthy enough to be alive, be it because of age-related diseases, infectious diseases, or because you’ve been shot in the head. The goal of nearly any kind of medical intervention is to prevent your health from becoming so compromised that you would die, whatever the cause may be. The same is true of rejuvenation biotechnologies: far from trying to push life’s non-existent predefined length beyond a non-existent ‘natural limit’, their goal is no different from that of the rest of medicine: save your life.

Short update

As I was saying elsewhere, the past month or so has been rather busy, and I haven’t had time to write a line anywhere. Now that that’s dealt with, let me give you a short update on what’s new with the rejuvenation world before I move on to some more meaty post.

You probably already know about Michael Greve’s lavish donation to ageing research, for which humanity as a whole should be grateful. That’s very good news. Still on the subject of money, the OncoSENS crowfunding campaign will end in about a day, and last time I checked it had reached around 56% of its 60.000$ goal. You still have time to make your contribution—they’re all welcome, big and small ones alike. I hear from Keith Comito of Lifespan.io that an “exciting announcement” about the campaign will be made during the RB2016 live streaming—because yes, they’re doing streaming it this year—and I’m looking forward to know what it is.

Cha-ching!

I’m a slow poster, you know that. Sometimes I’ve posted about ‘news’ that were a month old. That’s because life comes often in between.

However, this time around life can stuff it. I don’t want to be late for this news.

On July 12, 2016, SENS Research Foundation announced that Internet entrepreneur Michael Greve, who runs the Forever Healthy Foundation and KIZOO Technology Ventures, has committed a whopping 10.000.000$ (let me spell that for you: ten fucking million dollars) to SENS research and to startups focused on bringing rejuvenation therapies to the market.

In the words of Greve himself, “My goal is to provide support for the critical research of the SENS Research Foundation and to facilitate the development of the rejuvenation biotech industry and ecosystem. I think we should have more people contribute to the step-by-step creation of cures for the root causes of all age-related diseases. And we should have a whole rejuvenation industry based on the SENS treatment model including the self-accelerating feedback-loop of success stories and amazing opportunities for scientist [sic], entrepreneurs and VC investors. This will truly accelerate both research and therapies. I have decided to lead by example and make this $10 million commitment.”

Five of the 10 millions will be donated directly to SENS over the course of the next five years, while the other five, as said, will be donated to other startups of the field. The 5mln to SENS constitute 10% of the goal of SENS’s new initiative Project|21, meant to make the first human trials of rejuvenation biotechnologies happen by 2021.

That’s the kind of news that make my day. It’s the kind of news that makes you think rejuvenation biotechnologies just got a lot closer to being a reality.

However, don’t think that our job as rejuvenation supporters is over: We still need to keep spreading the word and donating what we can. Speaking of which, Lifespan.io’s OncoSENS campaign has been feeling terribly lonely as of late. It has reached a mere 19% of the goal, much less than other campaigns have reached in the same timespan. Why don’t you pay it a visit and bring in some friends?

Thoughts and updates on recent crowdfunding campaigns

Times really are changing.

Five years ago, when I discovered there were people trying to defeat ageing, I had a distinct feeling it would be a really slow process. I don’t mean just in terms of getting the science done, but also of getting people on board, i.e. getting through people’s skull the simple fact that biological ageing is as bad for you as is any disease. (It’s actually worse, since ageing comes with a nice bundle of all sorts of diseases.) However, things are moving faster than I expected.

The number of companies and researchers joining the fight is increasing, and unlike ten years ago, saying you work on delaying or even eliminating ageing doesn’t automatically make you an object of ridicule and earn you isolation from the rest of the scientific community. In fact, in the scientific community, the idea that ageing can and will be defeated is slowly becoming mainstream.

The amount of online articles about the quest to put an end to ageing is also multiplying, and the tone of these articles is much different from what it used to be. A few years ago, the idea of ending ageing was seen as a quixotic, groundless fantasy, the science behind it was dismissed and belittled, and the scientists working on it were seen as nothing more than delusional, arrogant eccentrics. Today, articles tell a completely different story, and rather than making fun of anti-ageing science, they worry about the potential consequences of defeating ageing. Critics are starting to realise that, far from being a delusion, the defeat of ageing is just a matter of when, not if.

That’s not all. The opinion of the general public seems to be changing as well. To see how this is true, it’s enough to have a look at the result of the crowdfunding campaigns on Lifespan.io. The MitoSENS campaign was a huge success and reached 154% of the goal. The MMTP campaign, which is still running for a few more days, is currently more than 100% percent funded, and the original goal of 45.000$ has been extended to 60.000$. The OncoSENS campaign was launched on June 14, 2016, and as of today (June 19, 2016, i.e. five days later), it is already funded to 9%. (On a less bright note, the DRACO IndieGoGo campaign isn’t doing very well—only 14 days are left, and only a mere 28% of the goal has been reached.)

I think part of this success is due to how people change their minds about things. More often than not, people don’t actively oppose new ideas in themselves. Simply put, if there isn’t enough buzz around a new idea, people just ignore it; if you don’t hear about it often enough, you probably won’t consider it worth your time. More importantly, if most people disapprove of a new idea, then you’re likely to feel subconsciously pressured to disapprove of it too, regardless of its actual merit. This happens for three reasons.

The first is that the illusion of being right, coming from the logical fallacy ‘if most people think it’s wrong, then it must be’, is comforting. The second is that it always feels safer to belong to a majority group. The third and final reason is that being one of the many fuckwits who were wrong feels much better than being one of the few fuckwits who were wrong. In other words, if a lot of people think ageing can’t be defeated and turn out to be wrong about it, they can blame it on the issue itself; if so many people were wrong about it, it must have been particularly hard to grasp or deceptive. However, if just a handful of people thinks ageing can be defeated and they turn out to be mistaken, they’ll come across as a bunch of twits who couldn’t realise the obvious.

Because of the reasons outlined above, when an idea is still new and fairly controversial, people may feel that the safest option to avoid ridicule is to side with the majority and dismiss the new idea without further consideration. The new idea is not okay to talk about because almost nobody does, and of those who do, most despise it and very few praise it.

However, if one day the new idea is all over the Internet, more and more people are talking about it, and there’s a growing number of supporters, other people will start thinking that, perhaps, talking about the new idea is okay after all. It’s okay to read about it and make your own opinion rather than accepting that of the majority. Inevitably, the number of supporters will grow even more, making it easier for new people to join in. And as the number of people joining the cause grows, the cause itself gets a lot more exposure, giving rise to a virtuous circle that may eventually result in the once-despised idea being endorsed by most.

This is why I hope you won’t just read this post, nod approvingly, and move on to reading something else. I hope you’ll share it, share Lifespan.io’s crowdfunding campaigns, talk about healthy life extension to your friends and family, and help generating momentum around rejuvenation biotechnologies in any way you can. Only through advocacy can we reach the critical mass we need to turn the dream of rejuvenation into a reality.