David Sinclair is an Australian geneticist and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He has a soft-spoken, almost tranquil tone, which has the effect of mellowing the audacity of his proclamations. Like this one: “I don’t see any reason why a child born today couldn’t make it to 150.” Or this: “I actually think it will be possible one day to be immortal.”
Sinclair’s forecasts are bold, but his basic research question is prosaic: Why must we grow old? From the outside, the aging process is far from mysterious: Our wrinkles deepen, our spines curve, our energy flags. But beneath the skin, it is a mystery: Every process that has kept us alive for decades slowly begins to go haywire, for no apparent reason whatsoever. “What we’re working on in my lab is trying to understand why those things happen over time,” Sinclair told me. “And I think we've solved it.”
In the latest episode of Crazy/Genius, produced by Kasia Mychajlowycz and Patricia Yacob, I spoke with Sinclair and several other scientists and technologists about the science of life extension and the allure of immortality.
In history and literature, the search for eternal life is an eternal disappointment. The Spanish conquistador Ponce de León sought the fountain of youth in the jungles of an unfamiliar continent; all he found was Florida. In Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, the protagonist initially succeeds in outsourcing the aging process to an oil painting, only to die tortured, decrepit, and suicidal. Perhaps the most hauntingly apt literary lesson for modern science is the Greek myth of Tithonus. As the story goes, Eos, goddess of the dawn, begs Zeus to grant eternal life to her mortal beau, Tithonus. But she forgets to ask for a rather essential complement: eternal youth. Zeus takes her literally, grants the gift of immortality, and Tithonus is left begging for death as he shrivels into a cicada. The gift is a curse.