Yesterday the Philae lander touched down on the surface of comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, hurtling through space at imponderable speed more than 500,000,000 km from earth and after a journey which has lasted more than 10 years – nothing short of a scientific and technological miracle. Modern life is full of miracles – and monsters. Sometimes it’s hard to recognise the miraculous from the monstrous and often opinions are divided, especially in situations where science and technology offer radical change or deviation from what we know as the norm. Of course it’s easier for us to accept radical change when the benefits are miraculous, obvious and direct, but often scientific development is met with hostility and fear of the monstrous, with the benefits and drawbacks not fully understood by a suspicious public.
1. an extraordinary occurrence that surpasses all known human powers or natural forces and is ascribed to a divine or supernatural cause, esp. to God.
2. a superb or surpassing example of something; wonder; marvel.
Like immortality, miracles are usually associated with religion and the gods; now though, it seems that scientists working across all areas of science, medicine and technology are our modern day miracle-workers.
Here’s a chance to wonder and marvel at some 1980s pop frivolity.
Immortality, eternal life, has been a preoccupation with people since history began and the search for the fountain of youth or an elixir of life is the subject of myth and legend. In the 19th century, respected scientist Charles Edouard Brown-Sequard, injected himself with a rejuvenating elixir prepared from the testicles of guinea pigs, which, the papers said, made “old men as frisky as the friskiest young boys”.
I’ve always had an interest in the resilience of nature and the incredible ability of plants to survive and adapt to the most inhospitable conditions on earth. For a while I was fascinated by lichen – a unique organism, a combination of fungus and algae, so common in our environment that we don’t even notice it most of the time, growing on almost all surfaces from walls and pavements to trees and fences. This fascination led me, at around the same time as the Wilko interview, to read John Wyndham’s Trouble With Lichen. The novel tells the story of the discovery of a lichen with life-extending properties, kept secret for many years by its discoverers who recognised the revolutionary nature of their discovery and its shattering implications. The potential effects of greatly extended life expectancy on society and individuals, from personal relationships (til death us do part… or fixed term contracts?) to the potential for a higher level of human wisdom acquired through super-longevity are discussed in some detail in the novel, sowing the seeds for my own questions to form.
More than a year ago a succession of experiences triggered the question from which The New Immortals project was born. The first thing that set me thinking was an interview I heard on the radio with musician Wilko Johnson who had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer and was embarking on a grand farewell tour. Impending death apparently intensified his experience of life; Wilko said, “I’ve never felt more alive, it’s one of the most intense years I’ve had. The things that used to matter … don’t matter to me any more. I’m embracing the present.”
Wilko has given a number of quite inspirational interviews in which he has talked at length about how the knowledge of impending death has changed his attitude to life. In an interview with Rick Fulton he said, “Dying doesn’t half make you feel alive. You walk down the street and you are looking at everything with new eyes. It’s not just a mundane world you are used to – you are thinking how marvellous it is to be alive. I’ve reached levels of serenity and happiness that I’ve never known in my life. You think, ‘Why didn’t I think of this 20 years ago?’”.
This then put a question in my mind: what difference would it make if we never died?
But now Wilko has been cured! An 11 hour operation earlier this year to remove a 3kg tumour, along with part of Wilko’s stomach, pancreas and spleen has resulted in Wilko being declared free of cancer. It’s a miracle. So, I wonder, what difference does this make to Wilko’s life now?