Today, as the world looks at the great possibility of life extension it sees Aubrey de Grey lead the field from the front. He may not be the guy who has achieved all the great science that is trying to fight aging but he is certainly the one trying to make the choice available to our generation. He is often, and controversially so, is quoted to have said that “The first 1000 year old man is walking the earth now”.
It was a pleasure to hear him speak at the Oxford University Scientific Society (OUSS) recently. He is an interesting public speaker and his campaign against aging has attracted a lot of debate. His talk featured much more hard science than his TED talk. After which Aubrey opened the floor for questions. It was my longest Q & A session at an OUSS talk and one which was conducted with grace. He never rubbished a question, even if it was one of those common-sense questions. Sometimes the answers did not make complete sense because some words came from his mouth and just got lost in his beard. But apart from that this was amongst the best Aubrey talks I’ve seen.
After the Q & A, we had the rare opportunity for a personal interaction. But it’s alcohol first, after a glass of white wine and two glasses of red wine at the post-talk drinks, Aubrey was in a mood to hit the Lamb & Flag. At the pub, the questions ranged from aging to the gandolph beard to computer science (his formal education!) to alcohol. Here’s a short summary of the most interesting questions:
- Q: So you moved from computer science to gerontology, why?
A de G: Because I met the right woman. There is a 19 year difference between us, I met her when she was 45 while I was at Cambridge. As scientists we spoke about science a lot. And we spoke a lot about the problem of aging and the more I read about it the more I got worked up about the problem. Now, 100,000 people die every day because of aging, which is not a joke
- Q: What made you big in this field?
A de G: Luck has played an important role. When I wrote the first Bioessay in 1997, the editor of the journal was highly impressed with the essay and asked me to write a book. I finished the book before the given deadline in Spring 1998 but the publishing house was in trouble. It took them a whole year to stand up on their feet and before they could publish my book they asked me to review it. In a year, I knew a lot more biology than before. I changed the bad job I had done into something that I am proud of even now.
- Q: How come you rose so quickly in the ranks of biogerontologists?
A de G: I believe that scientists can change fields easily and sometimes make bigger impact in the new fields they enter. I think it’s because people who move do not look at the same problem from the traditional point-of-view. This enables them to come up with unique solutions. We are not trapped by dogma and if we are bold we can rise quickly.
- Q: What gave you the confidence to be bold?
A de G: Boarding school made me an arrogant kid, Cambridge humbled me but allowed me to be bold yet not arrogant. This combined with my understanding of aging gave me the confidence to be a brave person. I also got the opportunity to interact with people well-established in the field and debate with them. That was the way I judged my knowledge about this area.
- Q: Would you like to supervise students?
A de G: Oh no! Having students is like having kids. No thank you.
- Q: Do you feel that you are not able to devote enough time to research?
A de G: No, I am happy doing what I am doing. I am speeding up research if not getting involved myself. I know that my work at the most will make these technologies available 10 years before time but in terms of the lives it will save, it would be a huge achievement. That’s what I work towards.
- Q: What do you do to extend your own life?
A de G: As of now nothing, but I keep a close watch on my biological factors. Right now I am at a biological age of 29. I drink quite a lot but that’s because I have a good capacity to metabolise alcohol. It gives me energy. I also eat mars bars and candy. As soon as I see signs of deterioration I will stop.
By the end of this conversation, he was on his 3rd beer. The chat was so engrossing that we had to be kicked out of Lamb & Flag at mid-night that day. To end, I will quote Nick Bostrom from his TED talk, “Godspeed Aubrey de Grey and the likes. May these technologies be available to us soon!”