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5/21/13

The Curious Case of the Benjamin Button Jelly Fish

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Is immortality worth it? What if you could turn off the aging clock? You see your loved ones die around you as you keep your fresh face. Or, is there another way to look at all this?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 story "The Curious Case of
Benjamin Button," a life is lived backwards, coming into the world as an old man moving through time to infancy and death.   After being born, the grey, wrinkled offspring turns to his youngish father, who tells him babies always have blankets. “ 'See here,' the old man announced suddenly, 'if you think I’m going to walk home in this blanket, you’re entirely mistaken.' "

Near the end of his life, in kindergarten, Benjamin recalls "the wild charge at the head of his men up San Juan Hill, the first years of his marriage." All that had "faded like unsubstantial dreams from his mind as though they had never been."

Here is a Kafkaesque story, one bizarre, even grotesque but, unlike Kafka, with a sense of humor. In Fitzgerald's story, time's arrow is not reversed, only biology's. Entropy and The Second Law of Thermodynamics still apply, despite the mathematics of physics, which indicate time can flow either direction. Whether it can or cannot, we experience it in only one direction.

Immortality is a separate issue and philosophers come down on either side of it, some wanting it, others declining it. Those who decline, claim endless life would be boring, wearying, despite even robust health. Those who want it think in terms of pleasures spread out over time so as not to satiate--meditation, listening to beautiful music, sexual intercourse, enjoying a gourmet meal.

As for longevity, it has been increasing. In 1786, average life expectancy was 24 years. In 1886 it doubled to 48. Right now a newborn can expect to live an average of 76 years. Jeanne Calment, a French woman, died in 1997 at 122. She recalled Van Gogh as a scruffy, disheveled man with dirty fingernails when he came into the family store.

Immortality may soon be at hand for those who can afford paying a DNA entrepreneur for it.The cause of aging is now becoming understood. Telomeres, molecular chains, are key in the process. The length of telomere chains becomes shorter as we grow older, becoming so short that cells cannot reproduce or, if they do, lethal errors occur.

When reproduction ceases, or as the DNA code is lost through errors, the Hayflick limit is reached. When you think of death, think of reaching the Hayflick limit. Born in 1928, Leonard Hayflick, its discoverer, is still waiting to reach his limit.

Turritopsis dohrnii ignores Hayflick and starts over when its limit is reached. Some call it the Benjamin Button Jelly Fish.

It was discovered by Christian Sommer, a German marine-biology student in his early 20s. In Portofino on the Italian Riviera, a place where you might want to live forever, Sommer was snorkeling when he spotted an interesting creature and took it back to his lab.

As he observed it, he noticed bizarre behavior. It refused to die. It appeared to age in reverse, growing younger until it became a polyp, at which point it began its life cycle anew.

This was as bizarre as Benjamin Button. It changed from old, growing younger until it was again a fetus. Then it began again in an ongoing cycle of aging and rejuvenation. This occurs, though, only under environmental stress or physical assault. Contrarily, we humans can be aged by stress and assault. More

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