I arrived at the Eagle a few minutes early on the appointed day, which gave me time to record some of the words on the memorial plaque near the entryway, which read “An inn has existed at this site since 1667, called ‘Eagle and Child.’…During their research in the early 1950s, Watson and Crick used the Eagle as a place to relax and discuss their theories whilst refreshing themselves with ale.”
Thus properly steeped in history and atmosphere, I entered the pub just in time to see de Grey through the window, parking his ancient bicycle across the narrow street. Narrow, in fact, precisely describes the man himself, who stands six feet tall, weighs 147 pounds. His spareness is accentuated by a mountain-man chestnut beard extending down to mid-thorax that seems never to have seen a comb or brush. He was dressed like an unkempt graduate student, uncaring of tailoring considerations of any sort, wearing a hip-length black mackinaw-type coat that was borderline shabby. Adorning his head was a knitted woolen hat of a half-dozen striped transverse colors, which he told me had been crafted by his wife 14 years ago. As if to prove its age, the frazzled headgear (which was knitted with straplike extensions that tied under the chin) was not without a few holes. When he removed it, I saw that de Grey’s long straight hair was held in a ponytail by a circular band of bright red wool. But in spite of the visual gestalt, de Grey cannot disguise the fact that he is a boyishly handsome man. As for his voice, being the product of a private school followed by Harrow and then Cambridge, it hardly needs to be described. To an American, he is of rare fauna, and his distinctiveness was catch-your-eye apparent even among his Cambridge colleagues.
Having seen a photo of de Grey on his website, I was prepared for his beard, spareness, and even his laissez-faire attitude toward externals. But I was not prepared for the intensity of those keen blue-gray eyes, nor for the pallor of the face in which they are so gleamingly set. His expression was one of concentrated zeal, even evangelism, and it never let up during our subsequent six hours of nonstop conversation across the narrow pub table that separated us. In the photo, his eyes are so gently warm that I had commented on them in one of my e-mails. But I would see none of that warmth during the 10 hours we spent together, though it reappeared in the 15 minutes during which we chatted with Adelaide de Grey in a courtyard between laboratory buildings after our Monday session at the Eagle.
Adelaide de Grey (née Carpenter) is a highly accomplished American geneticist and an expert electron microscopist who, at 60, is 19 years older than her husband. They met early in 1990, midway through her Cambridge sabbatical from a faculty position at the University of California, San Diego, and were married in April 1991. Neither of them has ever wanted to have children. “There are already lots of people who are very good at that,” explained Aubrey when the subject came up. “It’s either that or do a lot of stuff you wouldn’t do if you had children, because you wouldn’t have the time.” Raised as the only child of an artistic and somewhat eccentric single mother, already at the age of eight or nine he had determined to do something with his life “that would make a difference,” something that he and perhaps no one else was equipped to accomplish. Why fritter away resources in directions that others might pursue just as well or better? With that in mind no less now than when he was a child, de Grey has trimmed from his days and thoughts any activity he deems superfluous or distracting from the goals he sets for himself. He and Adelaide are two highly focused – some would say driven – people of such apparent similarity of motivation and goals that their work is the overwhelming catalytic force of their lives.
And yet, each member of this uncommon pair is touchingly tender with the other. Even my brief 15 minutes with them was sufficient to observe the softness that comes into de Grey’s otherwise determined visage when Adelaide is near, and her similar response. I suspect that his website photo was taken while he was either looking at or thinking of her.
Adelaide, although at five foot two much shorter than her husband, looks his perfect sartorial partner: she dresses in a similar way and is apparently just as uncaring about her appearance or grooming. One can easily imagine them on one of their dates, as described by Aubrey. Walking from the small flat where they have lived since they married almost 14 years ago, entering the local laundromat, talking science as the machines beat up on their well-worn clothes. They are hardly bons vivants, nor would they want to be; they quite obviously like things just the way they are. They appear to care not at all for the usual getting and spending, nor even for some of the normative emotional rewards of living in our world – all at a time when the name of Aubrey de Grey has become associated with changing that world in unimaginable ways.
But six uninterrupted hours of compelling talk (most of it pouring out of him in floods of volubility let loose by intermittent questions or comments) and the consumption of numerous pints of Abbot’s ale still awaited us before I would meet Adelaide and be taken to the laboratory where de Grey performs the duties of his “day job.” Very soon after we began speaking, an hour before noon on that first day, I asked him why his proposals raise the hackles of so many gerontologists. And right there, at the very outset of our discussions, he replied with the dismissive impatience that would reappear whenever I brought up one or another of the many objections that either a specialist or layperson might have regarding the notion of extending life for millennia. “Pretty much invariably,” he curtly told me, their objections “are based on simple ignorance.” Among the bands of that spectrum that de Grey will not confine to a bushel is his feeling that his is one of the few minds capable of comprehending the biology of his formulations, the scientific and societal logic upon which they are based, and the vastness of their potential benefits to our species.