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Excerpt From 'Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality'

Aubrey de Grey was enjoying his fourth pint of ale at the Eagle, with dinnertime still some distance away.

This was our farewell drink. I’d spent most of the summer listening to Aubrey over pints of ale. I’d heard him predict five hundred years for us. I’d heard him give us a thousand years, he’d hinted about a million years. He’d foreseen the coming of this new age of man in fifty years, or even as swiftly as fifteen. Now, because this was goodbye, Aubrey was trying to summarize his views, and to convert me once and for all, and I couldn’t turn the pages of my notebook fast enough to keep up with him.

“I mean, you have to appreciate the scale of this,” Aubrey said. “It never leaves my mind.” Think of it, he said: one hundred thousand human beings die of the infirmities of old age every single day. “One hundred thousand lives! I’m at the spearhead of the most important endeavor humanity is engaged in. Not easy to do, even though I don’t often show it,” he said. His face was struck by the late cloudy light from the windows of the Eagle, like a gibbous moon, three parts bright and one part in shadow. …

Friends of mine, distinguished biologists, were a bit shocked to hear that I was talking with Aubrey de Grey. One of them warned me that if I listened to Aubrey I would be making “a martyr out of a molehill.” But I didn’t see Aubrey as either of those things; and I didn’t think he was mad, either. Of course, he did drink. He admitted that himself. He had a long beard—but if you were charitable, you could say he wore that as a badge of office, the way an old-fashioned doctor would wear a white coat and a stethoscope. He really was highly intelligent, and he knew his field. He published papers with good people. He organized conferences, and respectable biologists came, and afterward some of them sat with him in the Eagle, too, listening and arguing. All in all, Aubrey was a remarkable phenomenon, a complicated mix of old and new, preposterous and plausible, practical and paradoxical, neither fish nor fowl. You could dismiss him with a laugh, but you would be wrong. In all these ways he was not unlike the field itself.

From the book Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality by Jonathan Weiner. © 2010 by Jonathan Weiner. Reprinted courtesy of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Read an interview with Jonathan Weiner.