The June 2017 issue of Smithsonian, like so many periodicals of the day such as Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Popular Woolgathering, is focused on the future. A contrarian by nature, I tend to regard such stargazing in a manner like Evelyn Waugh who regarded the future as “the dreariest of prospects.”
The article “Up in the Air” with gleeful adults shown floating in Superman flying poses in zero gravity environments does little to convince this reader there will be thousands of us living and working in space as the author claims. After all the giddiness wears off, the reality sets in that life without gravity is very hard. So is growing up and realizing that wishing upon a star is best left to crickets.
The real thorn in the flesh is the notion emanating from Silicon Valley that immortal life can be attained in this vale of tears, bumps, and bruises. One Aubrey de Grey, author of a tome with a title that is longer than I care to devote time to reading before the bell tolls for me, argues in The Mitochrondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging that immortality is theoretically possible. Page after page is devoted to this very free radical and others who believe that people will be living for hundreds of years and that a person who will live to turn over four digits on the yearly mileage meter has already been born. Where? On Krypton?
Even if disease, aging, and decay could be arrested or slowed, what would people do with their long, long, long lives? Work for 60 or 70 years and then spend the next couple centuries in retirement? Aubrey has the answer: robots will take over most jobs and people can spend their lives “doing things we find fulfilling.”
What will people find fulfilling enough to fill in the eons in front of them? Play in pickleball tournaments from age 137 to 144? Paint landscapes for 53 summers while raging against the dying of the light? Visit multiple generations of heirs ranging in age from 5 months to 181 years of age? Spend six months on each of the Thousand Islands? Tour the Southern states by walker or wheelchair in December 2139 to commemorate the bicentennial of the premiere of Gone with the Wind? Totter up close to see an outline of the Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills when it is finally completed in 2287?
Breathing for decades beyond the time when body and brain function at their peak is just existence. According to the July Consumer Reports, there were 74 million people alive over the age of 65 in 2015 and there will be 74 million over that age in 2030, 14% of Americans over 71 have some dementia, and Alzheimer’s Disease affects about a third of the population over 85. Perhaps Aubrey’s legions of robots will be paying for the health care and housing costs of 120 million centenarians who won’t remember who or where they are as their hearts beat on, borne ceaselessly into the future.
Dr. George Gamble, though no biomedical gerontologist, made a wise observation on the June 11, 1946 episode of Fibber McGee and Molly when he confided to the residents of 79 Wistful Vista that he had nothing “against humanity except there are too many people mixed up in it.” Any theories regarding immortality fall apart because there are too many mortals whose coils are already shuffling off to Buffalo.