October 27, 2000 (Ira Pilgrim)

It's Impossible

The march of invention has clothed mankind with powers of which a century ago the boldest imagination could not have dreamt.

Henry George

Children will believe anything. We can be sure that many kids will believe the impossible, such as that a fat man can come down a normal sized chimney at Christmas time. Some may believe that Superman can really fly. And why not? Didn't they see it happen on television. They will also believe that people can travel between stars and galaxies as they do on Star Trek.

When Jules Verne, the father(mother?) of science fiction, wrote about people flying in balloons or traveling in submarines, he knew that what he was writing about was possible, even though it had not been done at the time. Verne did not visualize a time when heavier than air vehicles would be zooming around the Earth and even circling in orbit around it.

The closest star to us is alpha centauri, which is about 4.4 light years away. The space shuttle travels at a maximum speed of 17,600 miles per hour( 5 miles per second). At that speed, it would take it 168,000 years to reach alpha centauri. That is about 1,600 hundred-year life spans. The only way that man could reach another star would be in an immense space ship that was capable of permanently supporting a population whose remote ancestors might reach their goal. There have been a number of science fiction stories about this, including several where the people in the space ship, after the passage of many generations, no longer knew where they came from nor where they were going.

Another bit of fiction is that it is it is possible to extend man's maximum life span. Medical hucksters talk about extending man's life span to 120 years. This is nonsense. It is possible, and to some extent this is now being done, to fix it so that more people are able to get to their maximum age; but that's about it. This has to with the fact that changes in our genes (mutations) are always occurring. Every time that a cell divides, errors can happen. Our genes are also affected by ionizing radiation, to which we are constantly exposed, and mutagenic chemical, which are also all around us. It is also the reason why your computer will not last forever.

It may be that aging is determined genetically. The same degenerative processes that occurs in people in 100 years, occurs in mice in 2 years. It therefore seems likely that there are genes that determine aging. Genes may be changeable, but don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen. Despite all of the hullabaloo about mapping the human genome, it is only a small first step. The next step is to find out what each one of those genes does. This is not something that you can program a computer to do, as was done with mapping the genome, but it takes real people and time; lots of time.

I regret it, but, eternal life is not just around the corner. If it were, it would be the greatest disaster to befall all of life on earth since a large comet or asteroid struck the Earth some 67 million years ago. And the first species to go would probably be Homo sap.

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