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Apocryphal Tales and Long-Term Results

Since starting this site in 2004, I’ve periodically emphasized the value of long-term thinking as we consider interstellar flight. This is not to suggest that travel to other stars will not undergo some kind of breakthrough that lets us manage it within a single human lifetime — we can hope and work for such technological advances. Rather, the idea is that interstellar flight is unlikely to be achieved in the near future, and that being the case, we have to recover an older way of thinking, one that looks beyond immediate reward to achieving benefits for our descendants.

That notion of carrying things forward motivated me when I wrote Centauri Dreams (the book), and naturally led to comparisons with long-term projects from the past, such as the great cathedrals of Europe. It also brought me to the well traveled story of the Oxford beams. It’s a fascinating tale, one that gets across exactly the point I wanted to make in the book, but the more I researched it, the more I realized there was no proof. The story involves New College, Oxford, which was founded in 1379 and has, among its other glories, a dining hall with massive oak beams, each forty-five feet long and reaching two-feet square, across the ceiling.

Image: New College dining hall, whose oak beams are designed for the long haul. Credit: Holly Hayes/sacred-destinations.blogspot.com.

Having discovered that the ancient beams had become infested with beetles, the College Council realized the beams needed to be replaced, and inevitably the question became, where do we find beams of that size? The story is admirably continued in the wonderful Atlas Obscura site, which bills itself as “A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica,” and which lives up to that promise on a daily basis. From Atlas Obscura:

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A great tale, no? The problem is, there seems to have been no patch of trees specifically assigned and maintained over the centuries to replenish these beams. College foresters routinely planted oaks, hazel and ash, letting the oaks grow large for use in construction. Moreover, the trees used to rebuild the hall came from land that the college did not acquire until sixty years after the hall was originally built. The tale is, then, apocryphal, but somewhat rescued by the fact that foresters have indeed managed lands whose trees were intended, over the course of time, to replace wood in various college buildings. Long-term planning is still the point, and you can learn more about the process in this video clip with Stewart Brand.

In any case, here is a tale about long-term thinking that does check out across the board: Vice-admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who died almost exactly 200 years ago, was Nelson’s second in command at the battle of Trafalgar, and it was he who took command of the fleet when Nelson received his mortal wound. The British oak used in the ships that fought the Napoleonic wars was planted during the reign of the Stuarts some 200 years earlier and allocated for future use in the Royal Navy. Knowing this, Collingwood went on to encourage the planting of oaks that would be made ready for future Royal Navy ships, oaks that matured long after the heyday of sailing ships.

In one sense, long-term thinking is about shepherding our resources to allow for their replacement in the future. In another, though, it is about being aware of our position in a long sequence of scientific inquiry, one that has built upon each previous generation to achieve new perspectives. Breakthroughs happen because people in the past did the necessary legwork. It will take that sense of patience and resolve to push toward a goal that has long seemed unattainable if we are ever to reach the stars, and if we cannot achieve it within our own lifetimes, doing strong, foundational research that can build new possibilities for our grandchildren is no small endeavor.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tulse April 1, 2010, 10:23

    It seems to me that the Collingwood story is far more relevant to issues of space travel, and give a moral opposite to the bulk of the article — where technology is important, and where technological change is accelerating, it is a mistake to focus one’s resources on one established approach. It is indeed important to take the long view and to plan for the future, but that long view should not include preferential emphasis on current systems — that would be like someone at the turn of the 20th century realizing that communications was important, and then starting a multi-decade breeding program for a national network of carrier pigeons.

    We need to plan in the long term for research resources, but we don’t need to be picking what we think will be winners in 50 years.

  • Administrator April 1, 2010, 10:28

    Tulse writes:

    …that long view should not include preferential emphasis on current systems.

    Agreed! A broad research base is essential.

  • Longbeast April 1, 2010, 10:36

    It’s difficult to accept the reassurance of work on paper leading to something greater in the future when what we already know how to do isn’t being put into practice.

    Preparations for an interstellar voyage are going to need material as well as theoretical backgrounds to them – industry and resource utilisation in space – and that’s happening nightmarishly slowly. As things stand now I couldn’t even name the largest solid object manufactured in space, not just assembled from parts built on the ground. I’d be surprised if it was anything bigger than a paper plane.

  • Gary Williams April 1, 2010, 10:59

    It’s odd that as we move forwards into an ever more digitial and fast paced socitey we have indeed lost that long term view and I think a lot of this has to do with Government and business.

    For example, in the USA a presidential term is four years so Presidents rarely show any interest in something that’ll bring rewards in 20 or 30 years, never mind a few hundred. They are always looking for the next quick win to secure the next term, nothing more than that.

    It’s the same with business, everything is about how quickly they can get the next product out, make the next bit of profit. Few places look to the true long term of 10 years plus.

  • Athena Andreadis April 1, 2010, 14:23

    Sometimes apocryphal tales capture and distill the essence, the quintessence of something.

    The story of the carefully planned oak grove not only speaks to the importance of long-term planning, but also highlights the collective nature of such enterprises and the need for shared hopes and deep roots, if such endeavors are to be nurtured across generations. I bet that the names of the foresters are not carved alongside the names of the Oxford deans. But they were as crucial as the never-enough celebrated NASA technicians and engineers, or the countless guild members who erected the great monuments of humanity. They dreamed, and acted to make the dreams come true, just as strongly and as well as those whose names are remembered.

    Excerpt from The Heirs of Prometheus:

    “These men and women, [the NASA engineers and scientists] whose names will never become known or celebrated like those of the astronauts, already dedicated four years of their lives to this mission — and will give as many in the future, analyzing the information sent by the spacecraft. Like the artisans who built Stonehenge, the Pyramids, Aghia Sofia, the Taj Mahal, these people grow old in obscurity, with their only reward the knowledge that will be added to the annals of the species — and with their sole but immense privilege to be the first who glimpse the New Worlds.”

  • Andrew W April 1, 2010, 14:24

    Long term the technology that survives does so by means of natural selection, looong term planning doesn’t work.

  • James M. Essig April 1, 2010, 14:29

    Hi Folks;

    Going to the stars I very strongly believe is a dream that will come true.

    We can certaintly hope for breakthroughs in propulsion physics such as superluminal warp drive, faster than light teleportation, wormhole travel and the like, and I hope that some or all of these superluminal travel methods are realized one day.

    However, we know for a fact that we have the equations of special relativiy on our side including that of relativistic time dilation. Obviously, for a space craft traveling at a high gamma factor of g, the velocity of the craft will effectively appear superluminal to the ship”s crew. What’s more, we may have effectively all eternity to devise kinematical systems to achieve ever higher gamma factors in the case that nature might not permit superluminal travel.

    But perhaps we have more than the three dimensions of space and one dimension of time to travel through. Even in the event that the laws of informaton transmission travel speed through space are forever sealed at velocities limited to C, we may find whole additional realms waiting to be explored in higher dimensional space wherein simmilar or dissimilar laws of physics, particles and fields, macro-scale structures, and perhaps even ETI lifeforms may exist.

    Even in the case where higher dimensional travel cannot be effectively used for appearent faster than light travel through our own universe such as by spatial temporal shortcuts, e.g., for the cases that the space time of ordinary 4-D is very flat and the adjacent higher dimensional Kaluza Klien like space time is also very flat, we might still be able to travel into such higher spatial temporal dimensions, and perhaps even start colonize them. Who knows, perhaps these higher spatial dimensions have a linear width much greater than that of our ordinary 4-D universe and a possibility of linear travel distances that are much greater than those in our ordinary 4-D universe, even in the case that our universe might have an infinite linear extent.

    This concept reminds me of the great TV series Battle Star Galactica wherein the rag tag fleet of surviving space craft would travel no faster than C, but wherein in one episode, the rag tag fleet had an encounter with a civilization inhabiting 4-D higher dimensional space or 5–D space, I do not quit recall, that interceded for the fleet after it was threatened by rouge elements from this higher dimensional space.

    Now obviously, this TV series was fictional, but the abstract lessons we can take with us are that perhaps we have effectively all eternity to explore ever further out into the ordinary 4-D Einsteinian space of our universe, which may know no finite bounding limits, as well as being able to travel into any higher dimensional space time.

    But we have to start some where. With all of the research and the extreme computational mathematicalization in nuclear fusion powered systems R&D such as at the NIF facility in the U.S. and ITER in Europe, and the bold Tau Zero/BIS collaboration on Project Icarus, I feel that given a National executive level promoted mandate or a UN mandate, we could likely develope the hardware and launch our first 0.2 C to 0.25 C capable manned star ship to the Proxima Centauri System or to Barnard” star by the year 2060.

  • Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook) April 1, 2010, 16:02

    “I feel that given a National executive level promoted mandate or a UN mandate, we could likely develope the hardware and launch our first 0.2 C to 0.25 C capable manned star ship to the Proxima Centauri System or to Barnard” star by the year 2060.”
    You wanna bet? Say, a solar wide economy and initial interstellar missions by 2110. I imagine we’ll have reasonably good life extension by then, so most of you lot should all still be around. Loser pays for the party.

  • Mark Wakely April 1, 2010, 16:51

    Not sure if this is related enough to the topic for posting, but I’m sending it anyway because it’s one of my favorite apocryphal tales about long-term plans and results. Here goes:

    An American tourist in England is greatly impressed by the manicured campus lawns of Oxford, particularly by how smooth and even they are, with nary a bump or rut. He immediately seeks out the head groundskeeper to learn the groundskeeper’s secret.

    “Hey!” he says brightly as the groundskeeper warily approaches. “How the heck do you make these lawns so perfectly flat? I want my own lawn like that.”

    The groundskeeper looks the American tourist up and down before responding in a pleasant tone. “Well, it’s really quite simple, actually. You just roll a heavy weight across your lawn once a week …” his voice falls menacingly… “for a thousand years.”

  • NS April 1, 2010, 17:09

    A general lesson we could draw is to not think only in terms of immediate (or even future) usefulness. Collingwood’s oaks won’t be used for sailing ships, but are none the less good to have. We study scientific problems because they’re interesting, not because they necessarily have any imaginable practical application. 500 years from now they may be applied in ways we couldn’t imagine. We can’t guess in advance what may be useful that far in the future. We can only convey as rich and varied a legacy as possible.

  • James M. Essig April 2, 2010, 0:30

    Hi Terraformer (a.k.a Tobias Holbrook);

    I will make the bet that by 2060, the first interstellar manned space craft to a nearby star is launched. I will pay for the party if I am wrong provided I am still alive. Note that I am 48 years old so that will put me at 98.

    Regarding life extension, I take two fish oil tablets, a heavy dose of vitamin D, a 1 a day general multi-vitamin, and just a few days ago I read an ABC News story that Cinnamon alone was shown to lengthen the lives of a species of transparent Earth Worm by about 14.5 percent in a study. Tomorrow I will start regular intake of Cinnamon and also olive oil. Sorry for the personal details but perhaps one good way to lengthen our lives is to use high doses of certain vitamins and various herbal remedies. The Earth Worms studied in the trial were genomically, highly similar to humans in some respects.

    My hope is that if a temperate exo-Earth or super-Earth is found, the notion of developing flight hardware and mission scenarios will heat up efforts at NASA, The ESA, and the Russian Space Agency, and other new entrants into the manned space flight club.



  • Athena Andreadis April 2, 2010, 8:27

    I agree with NS. Curiosity ,and the discoveries that stem from it, have proved far more rewarding (even in concrete results) than narrowly directed research. Example: a huge amount of money was poured in to focused cancer research. Net return: essentially zero. But off in one corner, someone found some interesting genes carried by certain viruses. They eventually back-mapped their cellular versions… and so we found the first oncogenes, which are factors that regulate cell growth, differentiation and proliferation.

    James, the results of life extension studies in other species are not applicable to humans and excess vitamins are either toxic or excreted un-metabolized. More in the articles below. What I say about mice applies even more to results from worms or flies.

    Eldorado Desperadoes I: Of Mice and Men
    The Quantum Choice: You Can Have Either Sex or Immortality

  • James M. Essig April 2, 2010, 13:27

    Hi Athena;

    Thanks for the above response. My folks especially my mother and my brother John tell me the same thing.

    My hope is that some form of life extension is possible however that can be accomplished.

    By the way, the two articles at the above links are fascinating. I really enjoyed the art work at the first link also.

    What do you think about the possibility of human hibernation such as may be controlled through nanotech means such that the near freezing human body will not become corrupt by micro-organisms or oxidation reactions. Out right frozen suspended animation seems a little freaky to me, but I could see myself undergoing some form of nano-tech controlled hibernation for any where from 1 year to 100 years ship time on a highly relativistic space craft thus opening up the Milky Way Galaxy for iteneraries.

    Popular Science has an interesting story posted regarding the notion of cooling the brains of injured military personell such as from IED blasts and other combat situation such that the metabolic processes of the brain would be greatly slowed thus mitigating the risk of a cascading process of inflamation and other reactions that would result in severe and permanent brain injury.

    Perhaps this research could gradually morph into R&D and applications such as whole body hibernation and the like for very long interstellar journies, ship time.



  • Athena Andreadis April 2, 2010, 15:13

    Jim, I’m glad you enjoyed the articles. Sidney Harris is nonpareil for science-related cartoons of penetrating intelligence. And you should listen to your mom!

    If we want to investigate human hibernation, my opinion is that we should study bears. They resemble us in size and metabolism, so they would be a good approximation. Cooling injured brains or bodies is something that is increasingly done to improve medical outcomes, for several reasons: decreasing infection, minimizing bleeding, sparing tissue… It can apparently mean the difference between life and death in some instances (heart attacks, for example).

    I agree that hibernation would be far more feasible than suspended animation (which may never be achievable in its cryonic guise). However, it’s unclear that hibernation stops the biological clock.

  • bigdan201 April 2, 2010, 19:50

    The long-term view definitely ties into my ideas. I see space colonization as the best insurance policy for the survival of the human species, a concept which I believe was echoed by Leto IIs “Golden Path” for those of you who have read the Dune series. It hedges our bets against disasters like nuclear war. Not only that, but it will counteract the long term negative consequences of globalism. Not that im anti-globalist, but homogenization is dangerous in a chaotic universe. When Ancient Rome fell, that cataclysm had little impact on China. But now, Chinese investment has a direct influence on our economy. With people living on different worlds, it will provide distance between us, enforced by c, which will mitigate the worst of homogenization. It will certainly lead to profound differences of culture, as well as race.. and it may even lead to greater biological differences as the different gene pools drift apart. Thus, space colonization is the best long-term investment for the species.

    An intriguing development is the M-ARC/millenniata disc. These are DVDs designed to last permanently, a solution to data rot/deterioration of digital media. Theyre like DVDs, but they use an obsidian-like material in the disc, onto which data is etched on with a strong laser. The advertised shelf-life is 1000 years, but it could probably last indefinitely. I definitely believe that this, or a similar product, will go a very long way in preserving our culture and who we are. If I were rich, id create an archive of these discs with all kinds of media on them. If I were richer, id buy one of those abandoned cold war era missile silos, furnish it so I could survive down there, and keep the archive there where it would be safe. Im going off on a wild tangent with some of my zanier ideas, but im pretty sure this blog is accepting of such things…

  • James M. Essig April 2, 2010, 21:29

    Hi Athena;

    I remember reading an article recently regarding the possibility of artificially induced hibernation in bears, and other mammals, with the instillation of sub-toxic levels of sulfur dioxide. If my memory serves me correct, metabolic levels of this compound and/or perhaps others lead to the onset of hibernation states in mammals that winter-over. Oddly enough, the article referred to the possibility of some future applications in humans such as for long duration deep space flights provided that the mechanism or similar mechanisms can be used to induce such states in humans in a non-injurious manner.


    I like the idea of sending disks or DVD types of media that are recorded in materials such as cubic zirconium or other extremely hard materials. One material of choice might be DVDs with a base or enclosing material composed of Carbon Graphene which has been measured to have 200 times the strength of structural steel.

    These disks could be launched in droves all over the Galaxy and offer cosmic human and/or ETI peoples decendents the wisdom of our civilization.

    At relativistic velocities, the extra material strength would not matter, infact, perhaps the density of good plain old soft lead would suffice, but at velocities on the order of about 20 km/second which is roughly equal to that of the voyager probes, super strong materials along with some type of dense and super hard cladding might be good enough to resist dust grain impact, perhaps even over cosmic time frames.

    I have great confidence that we will travel in person among the stars in the future, however, even before the first star ships are built, we can send out droves of DVDs and the like during the next two or three decades. I would like to see some of the commercials offer such space launch services for cliental who wish to sent representative recordings into the Milky Way. Such systems might even spur the development of near relativisitic or very mildly relativistic rockets such as perhaps a nuclear powered VASIMR like rocket on steroids within the next two decades.

  • Eniac April 3, 2010, 0:55

    About caloric restriction and similar life extension prospects: I don’t know, if it works on worms AND mice AND monkeys, there would have to be some very special reasons why it would not work on people, too, would there not? Only reason I can see is that we are one of the longest-living species. Mice and worms are not, but monkeys should count, or not?

  • drpayton April 3, 2010, 2:07

    April fools day is a day of long term thinking…. It is a day that anyone could create… It is a day that could be passed down for many generations…. At the risk of sounding tangiential…. April fools day is a made up holiday about making things up! Goto alpha proxima day hasn’t been made up yet has it? Is it against the law to make up a day? I think people should look fondly upon the day that we meet another matter fairing species! Or is it the law of the universe that everything “strive” to survive? Would humans displace a lessor species to insure the survival of humankind? You betcha! We r fighters as a civilization! We would annhialate anything that crossed our plain of existance if it threatened us and we could! Truth of it is… Maybe we as humans just don’t care enough to be apart of the Galactic Core! Maybe we care too much! Maybe there are only small tribes of us!YET! The whole tribulation of existance is fear of aloness… Then the possibility of aloness then the answer of aloness. We aren’t alone. We have eachother! Maybe we need to just send a message our best and cheapest way… 1080p!

  • Kenneth Harmon April 3, 2010, 2:53

    Hi All,

    Picking up on what Jim Essig said about where we may be circa 2060 in terms of our space travel capabilities, we must not get overly pessimistic about Interstellar Travel in the 21st Century. If we find anything of interest within 12 Light years of Sol/Terra, and especially of we find a habitable planet around Alpha Centauri we can get to these locations going at .2C-.25C It may not be easy travel at these relatively slow velocities, and we will still need a way to protect the ship from gamma rays, interstellar dust and the like, but it would be a managable endevour. What we need to hope for is a lucky break that w0uld create the political demand for such a trip, and the number one factor in creating such a political demand is proximity which in turn directly translates into “doability”.

    Barring a major physics breakthrough that creates a high velocity game changer it looks as if the issue is pretty straighforward. Find something of real interest to travel to within ~12 Light Years of Sol/Terra or we are going to be dreaming about Interstellar Travel for many centuries to come. While discovering a habitable world or even an Intelligent Civilization 500 or 1000+ Light Years from Earth would be a great discovery in some ways it is almost academic from a travel point of view.

    The bottom line is that the key initial step to any Interstellar Travel over the next couple of hundred years is to get a multi-disciplinary and robust Interstellar Survey Mission going that would survey and characterize in detail everything within an ~12 Light Years radius of Sol/Terra. Such an Interstellar Survey Mission could be launched as early as 2020 for a total cost of $5 Billion. If this were to find something then it is likely that the political and even the technical and engineering hurdles would be rapidly overcome.

  • Athena Andreadis April 3, 2010, 9:11

    Eniac, I outlined what is going on for all three species in my article. The link is in an earlier note on this thread.

  • ljk April 3, 2010, 12:06

    The Visions of Mars DVD attached to the Phoenix lander now sitting silently
    at the Martian arctic, is designed to last 500 to 1,000 years.

    You can see and read about it here:


    There is a disc on the Rosetta comet probe with over 1,000 language
    samples on it. Some day these may be the only surviving remains of
    ancient human tongues for historians and linguists.


  • bigdan201 April 4, 2010, 7:57

    I remember reading that centauri-dreams post awhile back, but I had forgotten about that part. I hadnt seen the article on rosettaproject.org – fascinating stuff! I had not even heard of that. That is a great project though.
    I hadnt considered sending these records into space, although that would certainly have its uses. The main issue for me is that by using discs (either m-arc or something similar) of hard materials with physical etchings in the data layer, we could preserve our records and culture indefinitely. When you consider that we’ve studied so much about past cultures and civilizations, yet are still only working from fragmentary sources, you have to wonder how much more we would discover if we found an expansive ancient library. Thats exactly what long-lasting discs could create.
    It’s interesting that the rosetta project disc has actual words printed on it that need to be magnified – maybe if they find an automated way of doing that (the computer equivalent of a printing press with moveable type) the cost could go way down. I was mainly thinking of storing data that could be read by a machine, which would be necessary for other forms of media besides literature. You could possibly have instructions for creating a reader machine in permanent documents such as the kind of readable disc used in the rosetta project.
    One of the most important long term projects is preserving our data in mediums that can stand the test of time.

  • Eniac April 4, 2010, 23:01

    Athena, If I read you correctly, the Monkey results are not real, or at least not nearly as dramatic as those in mice are made out to be. And those, you say, are because captive mice are couch potatoes for whom “caloric restriction” is really a return to normalcy. Those are fair arguments, that I am willing to buy. Although, you could argue modern humans suffer from similar conditions as captive mice, with similar effects.

    You also say that good genes are the surest way to live longer. So I suppose after vaccines, antibiotics, clean water and use of soap before childbirth, the next big thing for life extension will be be genetic engineering…

    Good thing too, because the thought of starving myself makes me shudder.

  • Eniac April 4, 2010, 23:40

    About preserving data for a long time: If we are talking a few thousand years, a long-lasting data carrier of some sort works fairly well, if buried properly or left on the surface of an uninhabited planet like Mars.

    Millions and Billions of years is another story. Quite likely data carriers can be devised that would last this long if undisturbed, but where do we put them to be undisturbed? Any planetary surface would not qualify, because of the meteorite bombardment. Interplanetary space would seem to be out for the same reason, as getting hit does not really become less likely away from a planet. Interstellar space would inconveniently transport the information way out of reach, pretty soon. That leaves the deep interior of geologically inactive bodies such as the moon or some small planets, moons, and large asteroids. This would make the carrier really hard to find unless you know exactly where to look.

    Perhaps a large quantity of solid metal could be detectable by electromagnetic methods (metal detector, long wave radar?) through enough solid rock to be safe from impacts. Are we doing anything in the way of electromagnetic subsurface scanning of the moon and other rocky bodies?

    I think that looking for messages transmitted in time is perhaps more promising than looking for messages in space, because a billion years is a very long time, and receiving a live signal in just these ~100 years we are able to look has a 1 in ten million hit against it right from the beginning, before considering any of the other eventualities.

  • Mark Meier April 5, 2010, 8:45

    Maybe we could nominate the date of the last Space Shuttle launch “Interstellar Travel Day.”

  • Eniac April 5, 2010, 9:04

    Of course, if you bring in self-replicating machines, a spread-out, self-limiting colony of them in the asteroid belt or some place like mercury (wherever there is plenty of rock and sunlight) could quite conceivably operate for billions of years, and preserve huge libraries of information in the process. Stored on active microchips, copied from generation to generation with redundancy and error correction codes to ensure absolute bit for bit accuracy over the entire time.

  • Ronald April 6, 2010, 8:08

    Life-extension? Try resveratrol, found particularly in red wine.

    And even if it doesn’t work that way, the application itself is well worth it ;-)

  • Athena Andreadis April 6, 2010, 18:57

    Ronald, ixnay on the resveratrol. It even failed to perk up mice. Enjoying red wine is another matter, of course!

  • Ronald April 7, 2010, 16:31


    what do you think of telomerase activators, such as TA-65? With regard to anti-aging and life-extension, I mean.

  • Athena Andreadis April 7, 2010, 20:54

    Ronald, what’s good for a cell is not necessarily good for an organism. Telomerase is normally active only in germ cells for which chromosomal integrity is paramount; it gets abnormally activated in cancer cells, allowing them to undergo uncontrolled proliferation.

    So for turning cells immortal, telomerase activators are dandy. For whole humans, not so much.

  • Eniac April 8, 2010, 20:52

    Too bad. I liked the name. Resveratrol, it has such a nice ring to it, like in vino veritas.

    PS: Can we have a nutshell preview of that article about genetic engineering? Pretty please?

  • Eniac April 8, 2010, 21:03

    Telomerase is necessary for longevity, but not sufficient. There are likely to be many independent mechanisms of aging, each will have to be addressed before substantial life extension is possible.

    The absence of telomerase in somatic cells (together with some of the other mechanisms of aging) is likely one of many cancer control mechanisms. That creates obvious difficulties, meaning we probably need to work on curing cancer first, before we can get around to immortality.

  • Athena Andreadis April 9, 2010, 10:43

    Eniac, exactly. Chromosomal integrity is only a small part of cellular longevity. Furthermore, if you force a neuron back into the cell cycle, it dies because the two sets of instructions (division versus differentiation) are incompatible. So feeding telomerase activators to brain neurons is a certain way to get dementia.

    Here’s the soundbite preview of my article: There are no genes for intelligence, virtue or even good taste in music. People who are proposing to “enhance” these attributes by changing single genes are doing the equivalent of preparing a crewed expedition to Mars based on the Ptolemaic view of the universe.

    Regarding records, it’s interesting (and distressing) that written artifacts are getting more and more fragile and evanescent: from stone tables to parchment to diskettes to electronic files. At this point, entire libraries of microfilm and diskettes are being lost because people no longer have the compatible reading devices. But it’s unclear than any artifact will survive millions of years, no matter how robust it is.

  • Eniac April 9, 2010, 23:40

    The way you would deal with the brain is you would rejuvenate existing or implant new neuronal stem cells, providing a slow but steady supply of new neurons to replace ones that are lost. I do recall hearing about active neuronal stem cells having been found even in adults, so this does not seem such a radical idea.

    If you can keep the cellular turnover slow, replacing cells should not significantly accelerate the natural turnover of memory and preserve the continuity of self, potentially indefinitely. People lose large parts of their brains all the time, in strokes and accidents, without (always) losing their minds in the process. And minds change, over time, with or without neuronal replacement.

    Of course, genetic engineering will only work for things we understand, and there are easy problems and hard ones. Fixing Huntington’s or cystic fibrosis would be at the easy end, increasing intelligence or taste in music on the hard end. However, the genome is not infinitely complicated, and ultimately we are bound to be able to hack it to tune pretty much any trait we want, simple or complex. At least within the boundaries of natural variation, perhaps further. What has been done to dogs over the centuries even without genetic engineering makes me think much further.

    We do know that intelligence, virtue, and even taste in music each have a substantial heritable component, you can prove that with twin studies. Thus, with full control over the genome, it is possible to control these traits, in principle. It can just be very, very difficult. It is like having 100,000 knobs to turn in just the right combination. You can never get it right by chance, or by trial and error, but if you remove the face plate and analyze and understand the circuitry behind the knobs, you can figure it out.

  • Athena Andreadis April 10, 2010, 10:48

    Eniac, I deal with all your points in the article. I already discussed the brain part in Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix.

    For the rest, briefly: the twin studies are way less robust than people (like to) think. And “full control over the genome” means controlling the miRNAs, the isoform ratios, the promoter/enhancer/silencer sequences for transcription and splicing, etc. Even then, the gene products will continue to constantly interact with the environment and alter relative optimality. Traditional breeding experiments (cats, dogs, royal families) had an in-built functional requirement — the results had to be robust enough to be born, survive and reproduce. Trying to tweak a fully functional starship is not the same as fixing a broken screw.

    You will have to read the upcoming article for the rest!

  • bigdan201 April 10, 2010, 15:51

    This post is moving off the front page now, but I had to mention a couple more things.

    I am optimistic about discs made of permanent materials as a long-lasting data archive. However, to get it to last millions of years is definitely a challenge. If you had them stored in an underground vault like I was describing, or perhaps under the ocean surface, that could defend against bombardment. Considering that we have dinosaur fossils and mosquitos trapped in amber that have lasted millions of years, theres no reason why we cant write our data in mediums of indefinite lifespan. Non-degrading mediums will also be great in the short term. Disks, film, and CDs don’t have a very long shelf-life, a problem that we’re dealing with already.

    As far as biological aging, im certain that there is some solution that will let people live in youthfulness for a much longer time. But it will be alot of work before we figure it out.

  • Ronald April 11, 2010, 9:32

    How about this message at Next Big Future?
    “BioTime’s reversal of developmental aging may be the seed for future technologies that will one day allow young cells of any kind to be produced that might be useful for aging patients in repairing the heart, the blood system, the brain, and the retina, as well as many others applications. In this way, we might increase the “healthspan,” that is, the years free from expensive and debilitating disease.”

    They also worked with waht they call the “the immortalizing protein telomerase” and lengthening of the telomeres, but, again, only at the cellular level.

  • Matt Dubuque January 9, 2013, 3:49

    I would simply point out that the story about the planting of a replacement grove of oak trees was originally related to Stewart Brand by our mutual mentor Gregory Bateson.

    Gregory’s father, William Bateson, was a renowned 19th century naturalist at Cambridge University who translated Mendel’s work on breeding peas from the original work in German into English.

    William Bateson also coined the term “genetics”, in the early 1900s so this story of the oak beams comes from an extraordinarily distinguished line of British scientific family spanning centuries along the lines of the Darwins and the Huxleys.

    The Batesons actually had leadership roles as dons of Cambridge dating back to 1762.

    William Bateson started off specializing in insects and butterflies and likely recited the story to Gregory Bateson (who conveyed it to Stewart Brand and myself) after hearing it from his naturalist and insect studying colleagues at Oxford University.

    Recall that this is a VERY small and distinguished community of entomological scholars at the time at Oxford and Cambridge and just because some accountant at Oxford had never heard of it proves nothing at all. And the story IS about oak beetles you see.

    I stake my belief on the most honored traditions in Western science and the veracity and distinction of the Bateson family, one of the finest in the world.

    The story is true. The Oxford bursar, despite his very vocal crusade, simply is not in the loop.

    Here is a short clip from a beautiful recent film about Gregory, including a short appearance by Stewart Brand.


    I am available to discuss this further at onehundredtrees@gmail.com.

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