Festival preview: Cambridge Science Festival, various venues, Cambridge, until March 24 2013
Although the fortnight of more than 200 events at this year’s science fest in Cambridge could hardly be accused of lacking frivolity, big questions stalk the programme.
Perhaps the most morbidly arresting is a reaper-fixated series on death and the search for immortality, including a meeting of three leading lights – biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, philosopher Stephen Cave and biochemist Guy Brown – to discuss whether we can or should live forever, eternally propped up by surgery, pills and potions.
“The average human lifespan has doubled during the past 200 years,” says Brown, a Professor of Cellular Biochemistry at festival organisers the University of Cambridge, where he has written a well-received book, The Living End: The Future of Death, Ageing and Immortality, pondering the prospect of an ageing population plagued by the diseases later life often brings.
“It continues to increase at the startling rate of five hours per day, because our society has invested heavily in delaying death. However, as a consequence of living longer we have more ageing and age-related disease.
“There is general misconception that ageing is natural rather than a product of our culture. Our current degenerative end to life is a result of our continuing focus on delaying death rather than delaying ageing and age-related disease.
“We urgently need to change this policy and switch research away from causes of death towards causes of ageing and age-related disease.”
Dr Cave, who is also the author of an internationally-acclaimed book, believes anti-ageing cures are akin to ancient mummification techniques.
“The belief that science can make us live forever is not only wrong – it’s dangerous,” he argues.
“It’s a false promise. It brings science into disrepute at a time when we need the insights of science and scientists to tackle global problems such as climate change.
“In the US alone, people part with over $80 billion per year for anti-ageing products, with Europeans not far behind - even though, in the words of the American National Institute on Aging, there are no specific therapies proven to prevent ageing.
“Pretending that ageing and death will soon be ‘cured’ won’t stop anyone getting wrinkles, but it will distract them from the fact that our time is actually limited. It is only when we accept mortality that we realise how precious each day is.”
Other themes beyond the macabre are available. Visiting from NASA, Dr Jennifer Wiseman will discuss the plethora of recent planetary discoveries which have caused the World Economic Forum’s annual report to remark upon the “increasingly conceivable” chances of finding “alien life or other planets that could support human life” within ten years.
A zoological panel will debate the controversial “Green Economy”, and a timely discussion, led by researchers, will try and uncover the truth about the potential energy crisis facing Britain.
Dr Matt Wilkinson, meanwhile, has locomotion on his mind. He’s aiming to show how the Olympic spirit has kept life going for more than three billion years.
“It has famously been said that ‘nothing in biology makes sense unless in the light of evolution’,” he explains.
“But it is also the case that little makes sense unless in the light of locomotion.
“It’s easy to forget that we are unusual. Unlike our primate cousins, we use two limbs rather than four to move; unlike horses and cats, we make contact with our whole foot instead of permanently standing on tiptoe.
“It was the later origin of two-legged movement that freed the hands from their propulsive role and opened the door to tool-making.”
Wilkinson was inspired by a fossilised pterodactyl, named Anhanguera, which he spotted during his time as a research zoologist in Cambridge.
“Its wings were enormous, but its weight was only 10 kilograms,” he recalls.
“With this build, to get airborne it must have launched itself from cliffs and spent its airtime soaring on thermals over calm tropical seas. Because they couldn’t risk alighting on the water to feed, they may even have attacked other flying creatures on the wing.
“So, by looking at Anhanguera’s locomotory design, I could see why it had evolved to be the way it was.
“We have been forged and reforged by the need to move. We are a living embodiment of the countless journeys made by our ancestors.”
- Visit www.cam.ac.uk/sciencefestival/ for the full line-up and more details. Follow the festival on Twitter @camscience.
© Dr Jacqui Shields