Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The Long Tomorrow – Michael R. Rose *****

A mixture of a book on the science of aging – gerentology (at least as applied to fruit flies) and an exploration of how a career in science develops, this title by Michael Rose joins the few really good books that give an idea of the realities of being a scientist.
The book starts at a conference discussing human aging, where Rose is shocked that some attendees wouldn’t want human lifespan increased, primarily for theological reasons – and this is very entertaining – but the really excellent part is when we get to follow his career. When he makes a start as a postgraduate, the last thing he wants to work in is aging. What’s interesting about aging to someone around the age of 20? But he takes up a post, primarily to be near his academic hero.
As often seems the case in true science, his progress is a mix of intended direction and re-focussing error as he begins what is to be a more than 30 year relationship with the fruit fly Drosophilia. Just occasionally Rose tends to lose the reader with his science – not that what he’s describing is hugely complex (he leaves out the messy maths), but there are one or two places you have to re-read to make sure what he intended. But these are rarities in what is generally both an enjoyable and very personal journey where you will discover as much about Rose himself as you will about fruit flies and about aging.
His great, and almost accidental, discovery is that it is possible to breed Methuselah flies with an unusually long lifespan, from which he hopes that it should be possible to get a bet understanding of the various genetic factors that make all animals age, and hence in the future to be able to do something about it. In the 1990s, he dabbled with biotechnology spinoffs, as everyone seemed to be at the time, and two or three times came close to being involved in a successful life extension company without ever quite making it. Somehow, the reader is glad about this – Rose keeps ending up back where he ought to be, with his fruit flies.
One of the most impressive revelations is when Rose is writing an article for a magazine, years after first starting working in the area of aging. The magazine asks him about relevance to the extension of human life, and genuinely isn’t until that point that he realizes that his work may be more than just a study of fruit flies. (It helps, as Rose points out, that by then he was getting to the sort of age when you first realize you really are going to die at some point.)
In a final chapter, Rose summarizes the position on the control of aging. We shouldn’t blindly go along with the likes of Ray Kurzweil who blithely assure us that people alive today have a chance of effectively living for ever, but even so he is very positive about the opportunities for understanding the different factors contributing to aging, and being able to do something about them, this century. A warm, highly recommended popular science book by a real scientist.
Review by Brian Clegg

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