Life, Death, and Disagreeing with Dr Karl
When it comes to Australian science communication, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki is pretty much king. But I’ve got a few bones to pick with him.
Source: Mark Coulson, 5th World Conference of Science Journalists. Wikimedia Commons.
I saw Dr Karl at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival a few years ago talking about the science of aging, telomeres as the bits on the ends of shoelaces and all that. Karl made the very bold declaration that before long, we’d all be living forever. As I remember it, he thought that if we in the room at the writer’s festival didn’t quite make it, then certainly our children at least would be immortal.
Remembering this proclamation, I had to doubt my memory. Just seemed like too weird a thing for someone who is pretty much the voice of science for many Australians to have said. The festival was years ago; maybe I’d remembered wrong.
Human chromosomes showing telomere caps. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
But no. The good doctor is on record all over the place talking about IMMORTALITY IN OUR TIME. When Andrew Denton asked him (on the sadly defunct Enough Rope) how he saw the rest of his life going, Karl’s response went like this:
Yeah, well, I’m hanging out there for the genetic revolution and with a bit of luck, I will be, probably, in the last generation to die and you’ll be the first generation to live forever. Maybe I’ll be able to join in that generation. And by ‘forever’, I mean 500 to 5,000 years with a healthy 18- to 25-year-old body.
That was pretty much the line I’d remembered him spinning at the writer’s festival. Pretty flabbergasting. The idea that it might be even any sort of outside chance that science will allow Dr Karl to live for five thousand years strikes me as totally ridiculous. Spectacularly unlikely. And I did find it very odd that he chose to paint the imminent scientific realisation of immortality as such a foregone conclusion, when surely, surely this must be a very fringe position. Scientifically speaking. Which is how we all expect Dr Karl to be speaking, as a prominent science communicator.
Stranger still, he seemed to think everybody living forever would be unequivocally good. But does anyone really want to live forever? Dr Karl does obviously, but I think most of us conclude that immortality eventually becomes a version of hell. The transformation of human life that would result is completely unimaginable—mortality is at the heart of the human condition. I was, and am, amazed the Dr Karl could be so blasé about the possibility of defeating death.
Joseph Wright: “The Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone” (1771). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
But I went from amazed to angry, at that writer’s festival, when Karl took a very obvious question from the audience. How would all these undying people fit on the planet, the questioner wanted to know. Completely casually, Dr Karl replied that they wouldn’t have to. We’ll have colonised other planets, other solar systems. He appeared to have complete confidence in this prediction. As he said in an interview on 60 Minutes in 2000:
We will leave the earth, our nursery, and go and live with the big kids in space.
Dr Karl’s confidence in that statement is totally unscientific. We haven’t put anybody even beyond low earth orbit since 1972, and we’re supposed to be colonising distant planets within the next fifty years? Get real. In fact, this is a perfect example of one of the most dangerous public attitudes towards science—science as the provider of magic technofixes, deus ex machina for the human story. Asserting that we’ll soon be colonising other planets is dangerous. Curbing growth is arguably the central human challenge of the century, and to brush it off with Sci-Fi fantasy is highly irresponsible.
Not anytime soon. Source: NASA. Wikimedia Commons.
If I’m wrong, Dr Karl will have a lonnnng time to say “I told you so.” But I’m willing to risk it.
(I’m planning on writing a couple more posts on growth and the space colonisation fantasy, by the way, but if you’re interested, there are some very stimulating arguments from a U San Diego physics professor here–some of my favourite science communication in fact).