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Live long and prosper

A brief encounter with Aubrey de Grey

Akshat Rathi 9 March 2010

A life's work: de Grey (right) with Rathi

I believe that scientists can change fields easily and sometimes make a bigger impact in the new fields they enter

Interviewer's note: Today, as the world contemplates the possibility of life extension, Aubrey de Grey leads the field. He may not be the guy who's achieved all the relevant science, but he's certainly at the forefront in trying to make the opportunity of long life available to our generation. He is often, and controversially so, quoted as having said that “the first 1000-year-old man is walking the earth now”.

So it was a pleasure to hear such a colourful speaker at the Oxford University Scientific Society (OUSS) recently, especially as his talk featured much more hard science than the one he delivered recently for TED. After speaking, Aubrey opened the floor for questions in what turned out to be the longest and most graceful discussion session I've ever experienced after an OUSS talk. He never rubbished a question, even if it seemed obvious – although sometimes the answers didn't make complete sense because the occasional word got lost in his beard.

After the talk, we had an opportunity for personal interaction. Alcohol first: after a glass of white wine and two glasses of red at the post-talk drinks, Aubrey was in a mood to hit the Lamb & Flag, where I was able to ask him a few more questions; in the end, our chat was so engrossing that we had to be kicked out of the pub at midnight. What follows are the highlights of our conversation:

So you moved from computer science to gerontology – why?

Because I met the right woman. There is a 19-year difference between us; I met her when she was 45 while I was at Cambridge. As scientists we spoke about science a lot. And we spoke a lot about the problem of aging and the more I read about it the more I got worked up about the problem. Now, 100,000 people die every day because of aging, which is not a joke.

What made you big in this field?

Luck has played an important role. When I wrote the first Bioessay in 1997, the editor of the journal was highly impressed with the essay and asked me to write a book. I finished the book before the deadline in Spring 1998 but the publishing house was in trouble. It took them a whole year to stand up on their feet and before they could publish my book they asked me to review it. In a year, I knew a lot more biology than before. I changed the bad job I had done into something that I am proud of even now.

How come you rose so quickly in the ranks of biogerontologists?

I believe that scientists can change fields easily and sometimes make a bigger impact in the new fields they enter. I think it’s because people who move do not look at the same problem from the traditional point-of-view. This enables them to come up with unique solutions. We are not trapped by dogma and if we are bold we can rise quickly.

What gave you the confidence to be bold?

Boarding school made me an arrogant kid; Cambridge humbled me but allowed me to be bold yet not arrogant. This combined with my understanding of aging gave me the confidence to be a brave person. I also got the opportunity to interact with people well-established in the field and debate with them. That was the way I judged my knowledge about this area.

Would you like to supervise students?

Oh, no! Having students is like having kids. No thank you.

Do you feel that you are not able to devote enough time to research?

No, I am happy doing what I am doing. I am speeding up research if not getting involved myself. I know that my work at the most will make these technologies available ten years before time but in terms of the lives it will save, it would be a huge achievement. That’s what I work towards.

What do you do to extend your own life?

As of now nothing, but I keep a close watch on my biological factors. Right now I am at a biological age of 29. I drink quite a lot but that’s because I have a good capacity to metabolise alcohol. It gives me energy. I also eat Mars bars and candy. As soon as I see signs of deterioration I will stop.