Why we need to get serious about ending aging
It is widely acknowledged that even a small advance in anti-aging science could yield benefits in terms of healthy years that the traditional paradigm of targeting specific diseases is not likely to produce. A more youthful population would also be less vulnerable to epidemics. Approximately 93 percent of all COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. occurred among those aged 50 or older. The potential economic benefits would be tremendous. A more youthful population would consume less medical resources and be able to work longer. A recent study published in Nature estimates that a slowdown in aging that increases life expectancy by one year would save $38 trillion per year for the U.S. alone.
A societal effort to understand, slow down, arrest or even reverse aging of at least the size of our response to COVID-19 would therefore be a rational commitment. In fact, given that America’s older population is projected to grow dramatically, and the cost of healthcare with it, it is not an overstatement to say that the future welfare of the country may depend on solving aging.
This year, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced that it will spend up to 1 billion dollars per year on science with the potential to slow down the aging process. We have also seen important investments from billionaires like Google co-founder Larry Page, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, business magnate Larry Ellison, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
The U.S. government, however, is lagging: The National Institutes of Health spent less than one percent of its $43 billion budget for the fiscal year of 2021 on the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Aging Biology. When you visit the division’s webpage you find that their mission statement carefully omits any mention of the possibility of slowing down the aging process.
There is a lack of political will and leadership on the issue, and the idea that we should seek to do something about aging is generally met with a great deal of suspicion and trepidation. In a large representative study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, only 38% of the respondents said that they would want a treatment that could slow the aging process and allow them to live at least 120 years. Apparently, most people prefer, or at least do not mind, to age and die within a natural lifespan. This result has been confirmed by smaller studies and it is, I think, surprising. Are we not supposed to live in a youth-culture? Are people not supposed to want to stay young and alive forever? Is self-preservation not the strong drive we have always assumed it to be?
We are inundated and saturated with an ideology of death-acceptance.
In my book, The Case against Death, I suggest that we have been culturally conditioned to think that it is virtuous to accept aging and death. We are taught to believe that although aging and death seem gruesome, they are what is best for us, all things considered. This is what we are supposed to think, and the majority accept it. I call this the Wise View because death acceptance has been the dominant view of philosophers since the beginning. Socrates compared our earthly life to an illness and a prison and described death as a healer and a liberator. The Buddha taught that life is suffering and that the way to escape suffering is to end the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Stoic philosophers from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius believed that everything that happens in accordance with nature is good, and that therefore we should not only accept death but welcome it as an aspect of a perfect totality.
Epicureans agreed with these rival schools and famously argued that death cannot harm us because where we are, death is not, and where death is we are not. We cannot be harmed if we are not, so death is harmless. The simple view that death actually can harm us greatly is one of the least philosophical views one can hold.
In The Case Against Death, philosopher Ingemar Patrick Linden argues that we frown on using science to prolong healthy life only because we're culturally conditioned to think that way.
Many of the stories we tell promote the Wise View. One of the earliest known pieces of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, follows Gilgamesh on a quest for eternal life ending with the wisdom that death is the destiny of man. Today we learn about the tedium of immortality from the children’s book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, and we are warned about the vice of wanting to resist death in other books and films such as J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter, where Voldemort must kill Harry as a step towards his own immortality; C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia where the White Witch has gained immortal youth and madness in equal measures; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where the ring extends the wearer’s life but can also destroy them, as exemplified by the creep Gollum; and Doctor Strange where life extension is the one magical power that is taboo. In Star Wars, Yoda, a stereotype of the sage, teaches us the wisdom handed down by philosophers and prophets: “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.”
We are inundated and saturated with an ideology of death-acceptance. Can the dear reader name one single story where the hero is pursuing anti-aging, longevity or immortality and the villain tries to stop her?
The Wise View resonates with us partly because we think that there is nothing we can do about aging and death, so we do not want to wish for what we cannot have. Youth and immortality are sour grapes to us. Believing that death is, all things considered, not such a bad thing, protects us from experiencing our aging and approaching death as a gruesome tragedy. This need to escape the thought that we are heading towards a personal catastrophe explains why many are so quick to accept arguments against radical life extension, despite their often glaring weaknesses.
One of the most common objections to radical life extension is that aging and death are natural. The problem with this argument is that many things that are natural are very bad, such as cancer, and other things that are not natural are very good, such as a cure for cancer. Why are we so sure that cancer is bad? Because we assume that it is bad to die. Indeed, nothing is more natural than wanting to live. We seem to need philosophers and story tellers to talk us out of it and, in the words of a distinguished bioethicist, “instruct and somewhat moderate our lust for life.”
Another standard objection is that we need a deadline, and that without death we could postpone every action forever. “Death brings urgency and seriousness to life,” say proponents of this view, but there are several problems with this argument. Even if our lives were endless, there would still be many things we would have to do at a certain time, and that could not be redone, for example, saving our planet from being destroyed, or becoming the first person on Venus. And if we prefer pleasant endless lives over unpleasant endless ones, we will have to exercise, eat right, keep our word, develop our talents, show up for time at work, pay our taxes by the due date, remember birthdays, and so on.
The Wise View provides us with a feel-good bromide for the anxiety created by the foreknowledge of our decay and death by telling us that these are not evils, but blessings in disguise. Once perhaps an innocuous delusion, today the view stands in the way of a necessary societal commitment to research that can prolong our healthy life.
Besides, even if we succeeded in ending aging, we would still die from other causes. Given the rate of accidental deaths we would be fortunate to live to age 2000 all things equal. So even if, contrary to what I have argued, we do need a deadline, we can still argue that the natural lifespan that we now labor under is inhuman and that it forces each human to limit her ambitions and to become only a fragment of all that she that could have been. Our tight time constraint imposes tragic choices and inflated opportunity costs. Death does not make life matter; it makes time matter.
The perhaps most awful argument against radical life extension is grounded in a pessimism that holds life in such little regard that it says that best of all is never to have born. This view was expressed by Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, by Sophocles and several other ancient Greeks, by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and recently by, among others, the South African philosopher David Benatar who argues that it is wrong to bring children into the world and that we should euthanize all sentient life. Pessimism, one suspects, largely appeals to some for reasons having to do with personal temperament, but insofar as it is built on factual beliefs, they can be addressed by providing a less negatively biased understanding of the world, by pointing out that curing aging would decrease the badness that they are so hypersensitive to, and by reminding them that if life really becomes unbearable, they are free to quit at any time. Other means of persuasion could include recommending sleep, exercise and taking long brisk walks in nature.
The Wise View provides us with a feel-good bromide for the anxiety created by the foreknowledge of our decay and death by telling us that these are not evils, but blessings in disguise. Once perhaps an innocuous delusion, today the view stands in the way of a necessary societal commitment to research that can prolong our healthy life. We need abandon it and openly admit that aging is a scourge that deserves to be fought with the combined energies equaling those expended on fighting COVID-19, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke and all the other illnesses for which aging is the greatest risk factor. The fight to end aging transcends ordinary political boundaries and is therefore the kind of grand unifying enterprise that could re-energize a society suffering from divisiveness and the sense of a lack of a common purpose. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile cause.
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio improves about 10 minutes into the episode. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/