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).

9 Responses to “Life, Death, and Disagreeing with Dr Karl”

  1. Stacey says:

    Great post, Michael.

    I also get frustrated when I see science communicators misrepresenting information. In particular, I think it’s difficult for an audience, who is not educated on the subject matter being discussed, to separate information from opinion – and Dr. Karl was clearly giving his opinion in these examples.

    It’s funny that you chose to speak about his exaggerations – one of my biggest problems with mainstream media’s portrayal of science is the exaggeration. For instance, I often hear news reports on TV about new discoveries that could lead to new breakthrough drugs. It’s always exaggerated as if to imply that next year we’ll all be able to cure cancer, or lose 20 kilo’s, or whatever, just by taking a pill. It’s always left out that the discover has only just been made, and that if it does eventually lead to something useful (which most don’t), it still takes about 10-20 years to get any new drug properly tested and approved for use.

    Harriot made a fantastic point though – the problem is probably that we don’t have enough people out there to represent science correctly.

  2. Michael Horn says:

    I also think nuclear energy will likely play an increasing role, just probably not to the extent that would allow continued exponential growth. Some interesting perspectives here: If we really got our act together with nuclear though, that could be great.

  3. frankie says:

    “It’s the fossil fuel party, and going to end.”

    While I think this is a most probable scenario, many people tend to forget the potential role that nuclear energy could play in the future energy mix (especially in terms of abundant low-carbon stationary energy). I’m not particularly advocating for it, but if policy-makers were keen enough I’d say we could have a booming nuclear economy within a few decades. How far that could go is anyone’s guess…

  4. Michael Horn says:

    Thanks Harriet, that’s a wise thought. I don’t think it had occurred to me that the problem was the monopoly more than anything. I actually feel less of a need to shake Dr Karl by the shoulders now!

  5. Harriet Dashnow says:

    As scientists and science students we can feel betrayed when science communicators who we feel are representing us as a community say things that we disagree with. I think we should take it as a sign that we need more of us out there communicating. Everyone is going to have a few quirky opinions, but the greater the number of educated science communicators out there, the better our views are likely to be represented.

  6. Michael Horn says:

    Pat, I would suggest that exponential increases in scientific and technological development have ridden on the back of exponential increases in energy use. It’s the fossil fuel party, and going to end. Futurists seem like defanged Sci-Fi writers to me, doomed to optimism.

    And thanks Anthony, some really interesting points. I totally agree that immortality would strip life of meaning. Here’s to a good eighty years!

  7. Pat Bonney says:

    Interesting post, Michael! While Dr. Karl made some pretty ‘out-there’ comments, don’t underestimate the outcome of the exponential increase in our scientific and technological development. I point you to another guy (equally outrageous), Ray Kurzweil, a futurist with some incredible predictions. Truly mind-blowing stuff.

  8. Anthony Agosta says:

    Part of being a human being is being aware that eventually we will die; it is part of the natural cycle of life. We are not immortal beings like the Gods in Greek mythology. I actually remember reading that the Greek Gods were actually envious of human beings, because their life was so much more precious than theirs.

    Your post actually reminds me of the film ‘In Time’ which came out last year. In the film everyone never ages past their 25th Birthday due to the advancement of medical science. Ideally people can live forever given that they are wealthy enough to do so (time is treated as a currency in the film).

    Perfect health is one thing, but we are not indestructible, we remain fragile beings and an unfortunate accident will still claim our lives. Life is precious, and if our time was essentially limitless, I think that it would begin to lose its value. Plus isn’t a good 80 years on this Earth enough time to achieve all that we desire? What are other people’s opinions?

  9. Sila says:

    Hi Michael,

    Great piece. I love Dr. Karl, he finds ways to engage people from all walks of life with the fun of science. However, I too see these proclamations as ridiculous! Looking at scientific predictions in the past and how poorly they’ve panned out, I doubt the next generation will be living forever.