In February of 1880, the whaling ship Hope sailed north from Peterhead, Scotland, and headed for the Arctic. Her crew included a highly regarded captain, an illiterate but gifted first mate, and the usual roster of harpooners, sailors, and able-bodied seamen--but not the intended ship's surgeon. That gentleman having been unexpectedly called away on family matters, a last-minute substitute was found, in the form of a middling third-year medical student making his maiden voyage: a young man by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle. Conan Doyle was twenty when he left Peterhead and twenty-one when he returned. On Saturday, May 22nd, in the meticulous diary he kept during that journey, he wrote, "A heavy swell all day. I came of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 600 miles or so from the North Pole." Funny indeed, for a man who would come to be associated with distinctly un-Arctic environments: the gas-lit glow of Victorian London, the famous chambers at 221B Baker Street, and--further afield, but not much--the gabled manors and foggy moors where Sherlock Holmes tracked bloody footprints and dogs failed to bark in the night. Shortly after returning from the north, and long before writing any of the stories that made him famous, Conan Doyle told two tales about the Arctic--one fictional, the other putatively true. The first, in 1883, was "The Captain of the Pole-Star," one of his earliest published short stories. In it, a young medical student serving as the surgeon on a whaling ship watches, first in disbelief and then in dread, as his captain goes mad. Although winter is closing in, the captain sails northward into the Arctic until his ship is stuck fast.
On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear's living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium's first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they'd read--and in some cases done--the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course. When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, "I have a question about the mitochondria. I've been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?" Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it "the God molecule." But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging. Yet the premise of the evening was that answers, and maybe even an encompassing solution, were just around the corner. The party was the kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine's Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. Victor Dzau, the academy's president, stood to acknowledge several of the scientists in the room. He praised their work with enzymes that help regulate aging; with teasing out genes that control life span in various dog breeds; and with a technique by which an old mouse is surgically connected to a young mouse, shares its blood, and within weeks becomes younger. Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. "I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it's encoded," he said. "If something is encoded, you can crack the code." To growing applause, he went on, "If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!" It's a big ask: more than a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, the majority of aging-related diseases. Yet Yun believes, he told me, that if we hack the code correctly, "thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can't defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever." Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business, announced that her company would oversee longevity-related patents that Yun had pledged to the cause.
After watching the least popular Presidential candidates in modern history fight for the country's highest office, one can't help wondering whether the problem isn't the political system but the species itself. Zoltan Istvan was in town recently, campaigning as the Presidential nominee of the Transhumanist Party. He was on track to appear on the ballot in zero states. "Politicians keep having the same old arguments about tax policy and Social Security," he said. "Transhumanists want to talk about how science can help us radically transform the human experience, how we can cure death and disease and upload our consciousness into the cloud, things like that."