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Fictional Science

Anti-aging research is suffering from the same ailment that has long plagued nanotech: wild, fanciful claims.
November 29, 2005

In doing reporting recently on anti-aging research, I was struck by the similarities that this truly exciting field shares with nanotechnology. In both nanotech and anti-aging research, there seem to be those – usually non-researchers with a self-professed theoretical bent – making wild claims, clamoring for constant attention. In anti-aging research, it is the live-forever crowd; in nanotech, it is the self-replicating nanobots group.

What to make of these groups? More important, what’s to be made of their impact on the respective fields? Are they simply producing irrelevant chatter that is best to ignore? Does their hype at least bring needed attention to the research? Or do they represent destructive forces that obscure the truly interesting science that is being done? It would require a sociologist of science to properly answer these questions, but as a journalist I would say the overall impact is not a positive one. In writing about nanotechnology, one learns quickly to separate the true science from the nonsense. Nevertheless, it is frustrating to see the nano hypsters continuing to get so much attention. More to the point, it continues to be frustrating to see those doing real science not getting the credit they deserve for driving forward nanotechnology.

The same dynamics seem to be taking shape in anti-aging research. Researchers in biogerontology are facing the same dilemma faced by those in nanoscience: how to respond to wild claims that have no empirical support. Richard Smalley, the chemist, nanotech pioneer, and Nobel Laureate who died late last month (see “Richard Smalley”), spent a great deal of energy battling the absurd claims of nano fantasists. Most famously, in a December 1, 2003 cover story in Chemical & Engineering News he did battle with nanotech “visionary” K. Eric Drexler. Smalley is to be greatly respected for engaging in this public argument, and for doing so in the pages of the chemical industry’s premier publication. But in the end, his note of frustration was evident:

“You and people around you have scared our children. I don’t expect you to stop, but I hope others in the chemical community will join with me in turning on the light, and showing our children that, while our future in the real world will be challenging and there are real risks, there will be no such monster as the self-replicating mechanical nanobot of your dreams.”

So, how should the biogerontology scientific community respond to the live-forever crowd? That’s for each person in that community to decide. But in making up their minds, it is worth noting the professional courage of Smalley in actively engaging the nonsense arguments, and the risk that he foresaw in letting such arguments go unchecked.

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Illustration by Rose WongIllustration by Rose Wong

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