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Debating Immortality

Aubrey de Grey believes we can live forever. Gerontologist Richard Miller at the University of Michigan begs to differ.
November 29, 2005

In March 2005, we published “Do You Want to Live Forever?,” a cover story by renowned physician and writer Sherwin Nuland that took a deeply skeptical view of the claims of Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical biologist at the University of Cambridge who believes that human aging can be “fixed.” The story elicited outrage not just from de Grey’s many partisans, but also from many working biogerontologists who told us we were nuts to waste ink criticizing de Grey’s theories. What follows is a letter to de Grey by Richard Miller, a professor of pathology at the University of Michigan and a well-known biogerontologist. Tomorrow, we’ll post de Grey’s response to his letter. – Editors.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Jason Pontin
Editor in chief and publisher, Technology Review

Dear Jason:

My colleagues have called to my attention the excited fascination with which Technology Review has been treating Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s program to conquer aging. As you know, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) program delineates seven problems that from Dr. de Grey’s perspective are the key components of aging, and suggests that they can be solved by a combination of stem-cell therapy, senescence-marker tagged toxins, allotypic mt-coded proteins, IL-7, total telomerase deletion, genetically engineered hormone-secreting muscle cells, and phenacyldimethylthiazolium chloride.

De Grey has challenged gerontologists to debate the merits of the SENS program, and has expressed his opinion that we are now at or near a historical “cusp”; those born after the cusp will be able to stay alive and youthful by adherence to the SENS strategy.

Although de Grey’s assertions have enjoyed wide circulation in the lay press, at scientific meetings, and in your own journal, it is fair to say that many experienced gerontologists still remain somewhat skeptical about his claims.

Nonetheless, his success in developing such a well-regarded plan to solve the aging problem has prompted me to ask for his help on a similarly complex technological challenge. Alas, I have lost Aubrey’s phone number, and so I was hoping that Technology Review might be willing to publish this open letter to him, along with these introductory remarks, as a public service to those of us who look forward to hearing his insights into problems of this kind.

Best regards,
Richard Miller, MD, PhD, Professor of Pathology, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI


Dear Aubrey:

I saw you on TV the other day, and was hoping that now that the aging problem has been solved, you might have time to help me in my publicity campaign to solve a similar engineering challenge, one that has been too long ignored by the ultra-conservative, fraidy-cat mainstream scientific community: the problem of producing flying pigs.

A theoretical analysis of the problem, using the fastest available modern computers, shows that there are a mere seven reasons why pigs cannot, at present, fly:

1. They do not have wings.

2. They are too heavy to get off the ground.

3. The so-called “law” of gravity.

4. They cannot climb trees.

5. Hair, instead of feathers.

6. They do not wish to fly.

7. They do not tweet.

Although I have been too busy in my day-job to find time to work in a laboratory, I have been able to show clearly that these problems can be solved, using an approach I call Plan for Engineered Porcine Aviation, or PEPA.

1. No wings: Genetic engineering will be used to alter Hox-box promoters and micro-RNA gene enhancers to re-activate the pre-wing somite program. A dab of stem-cell therapy might help here, too; at any rate, it cannot hurt, can it?

2. Too heavy: Although the average pig cell is a chunky 20 microns in diameter, microbiologists have recently documented (R. M. Morris et al., Nature 420:806, 2002) free-living organisms as small as 0.8 micron in diameter. By the well-known inverse cube law, a reduction in mean cell diameter of 25 will lead to a reduction in volume of 253 = 15,625, with a corresponding reduction in pig weight.

3. Gravity problem: This one’s easy – either move the pig to Phobos, one of the low-gravity satellites of Mars, where people are going anyway, and can just drop the pig off on the way, or else use transient hypergravity attractivity to hollow out the Earth by removing the heavy and unnecessary core. As a side effect, if this is done properly, it just might speed up the Earth’s rotation sufficiently to provide the pig with a bit of a push to get it started, too.

4. Can’t climb trees: Who says pigs cannot climb trees? Because so far most of their food has been placed in troughs or in the undergrowth of French forests, pigs have not previously been motivated to climb trees. In any case, toxin-constrained nano-bonsai ought to do the trick here.

5. No feathers: The Drosophila antennapaedia gene (for which a Nobel prize was recently awarded) allows the transformation of bristles into legs or antennas, and there’s no reason this wouldn’t work for feathers and pigs, too.

6. Lack of motivation: Easy to solve: LSD.

7. Tweet problem: Implantable helium sacs, just under the armpits, so whenever they flap their wings a bit of helium gets squirted into their vocal cavity.

Although each of these strategies is based upon sound scientific precedent or fantasy, nonetheless some of my conservative critics here on the local faculty have argued, from their ivory tower, that no one has yet proven that any one of these methods has been shown to convert porkers to parakeets. But no one has yet tried all seven of them together, don’t you see! In addition, funding for porcine avionics research has to date been very, very low, due to the stubborn insistence of NIH on peer review. The PEPA program, however, has been endorsed, or at any rate not publicly pilloried, by dozens of eminent scientists whose names I could give you if necessary.

Amazing though it may seem, I believe that we are now at what I call a “cusp” in the history of either porki-culture or -aviation or both. Pigs born before April 14, 2009, will be destined to a life on the ground, rooting about for scraps, grunting unpleasantly, and constantly getting their curly little tails entangled in low-lying shrubs. Pigs born after April 15, 2009 (or perhaps a few days later), will in contrast waft lazily through the lambent skies, tweeting merry greetings to one another, nibbling at an occasional air-truffle, and enjoying panoramic views of either Cambridge or Phobos, depending. Also, they’ll get to live forever, by following the practices so stirringly depicted in your own articles.

All I need is a clever marketing gimmick – perhaps a prize of some sort – that will fool journalists and conference organizers into thinking that the only reason none of this works yet is that scientists are afraid to debate me. Any advice?

All the best,
Richard Miller

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