The greatest ambition of man, from time immemorial is to become immortal; as the major difference between the humans & Gods - that people of different civilizations have worshipped over the ages; was in their ability to withstand ravages of time & nature, in contrast to the fragile & vulnerable humans, who bowed down before them. Without their shield of immortality, Gods would never get the respect & dominion over the people of different race and religion. The quest for immortality by the human race, has taken different forms over the ages. From mysterious spells, secret potions and perusal of the occult in the ancient times; the world has graduated to techniques, which are more scientific and rational in approach. In this age of advanced scientific achievements, lot many people ask the question – How close are we to eternal life? This article is just an attempt to describe the history of this journey, from its mystical origin of the past, to the science oriented final destination of the future.
“Where history meets myth – Legends are born”. Quite often when we read history, we sometimes come across facts, that totally shake our belief in, what is possible & what is not. In this context the Sumerian King List, assumes considerable importance. The Sumerian King List, is an ancient document which was inscribed in a rectangular stone tablet, in ancient Sumerian language, mentioning the details of reigns of kings, who ruled over Sumer (One of the oldest civilizations of the world, which corresponds to an area of modern day, southern Iraq) and nearby adjoining kingdoms. This list assumes tremendous importance as it describes the kings and events, that happened in the 3rd millennium BC.
In this context, the mention of – Antediluvian rulers, who ruled before a great flood swept across the area is quite significant. The Sumerian tablets describes a total of 8 Kings, who combinedly ruled for a period of 241,200 years. Among the King list, the king who had the largest duration of rule – had 43,200 years of reign & the one who ruled for the least period, was also on the throne for 18,600 years. Following the great flood, a new era of kings started in all the nearby areas, who although did not had have a long duration of rule as the earlier kings, but still their rule was also much more than the life expectancy of modern day humans. King Gilgamesh, who is the famous protagonist of – Epic of Gilgamesh (the most ancient epic of the world) and a real historical personality (who is believed to have lived around 2600 BC), is also mentioned to have ruled for 126 years.
The flood described in “The Sumerian Kings List” is also mentioned in Bible, where Noah is entrusted with saving all animal species. Interestingly between Adam, the first man described in Bible, to time of Noah – there were 8 generations, who lived in between. Noah’s grandfather Methuselah is also mentioned to have lived for 969 years.
Archaeologists have verified the fact, that a river flood had indeed occurred in the area around 2900 BC, but the existence of the mentioned rulers, who ruled before this great flood, have been met with scepticism, due to lack of supportive archaeological evidence. Many scholars believe that this list was made up by writers of ancient Sumer, who linked real historical rulers (who came later and ruled for much shorter period) as descendants of ancient mythological characters, who ruled for many millennia. Many believe that, the unbelievable long reign of these ancient rulers was just made to glorify & justify, the divine lineage of the actual historical kings, who came much later.
However, the attempted explanation of facts mentioned in these ancient tablets, by combination of mythological and real historical characters, in a singular document - which clearly describes the name of the kings & their rule periods in detail, suffers from certain flaws, as many others believe. How could parts of information be totally accurate (as proved by historical evidence) and others be totally fictitious, in the same document? The discovery of more than a dozen copies of Sumerian King Lists, found from diverse areas like – Royal library of Nineveh, Assyria & Babylon has lent much support for facts mentioned therein, as so many writers in different place can’t lie about the same thing.
These historical and archaeological scholars believe that absence of proof, doesn’t essentially mean – proof of absence; & there is more to this, than what meets the eye. They believe that this modern day hypothetical explanation, provided by archaeologists, is just for hiding their own ineptness to understand & explain, manuscripts that are many millennia old. One of the most important ancient texts of the world, still retains many mysteries, left to be unravelled by modern man. It raises more questions than what it answers – most important of which is, can it really be possible for the ancient kings, to rule for thousands of years?
A news in May 2018, created ripples in scientific community. The events described how 2 small roundworms, who lived in time when woolly mammoth roamed the earth, have survived till date. These two nematodes, which are 41,700 and 32,000 years old, have managed to survive in Siberian permafrost and have been brought back to life, when scientist thawed the ice, that had imprisoned them for so long a duration. These worms, which have been described as belonging to female sex, have woke up after being asleep for thousands of years and are at present the oldest living organism on the planet. They have shown signs of movement as well as eating, after so many millennia.
These events have increased the focus on cryobiosis, which is the study involving production of dormant state in an organism (temporary state of almost undetectable/imperceptible metabolic activity), brought about by extreme environmental conditions like – extremely low temperature. Some other animals like lobsters and centipedes have also been shown to survive by process of cryobiosis (but maybe not as long as the mentioned roundworms). These findings have shown promise of application of the same principles for, suspended animation in humans - by freezing their bodies for years. This technology at present is directed for use in astronauts, expected to go on long duration space exploration.
TARDIGRADE is another organism, which although is microscopic in size (measuring between 0.1mm to 1.5mm) but are believed to be toughest living organism in the planet. Tardigrades are also known as ‘water bears’ (because the way they walk) or ‘moss piglets’ and are ubiquitous in nature. They are found in diverse locations – which can range from mountain tops to deep sea & from polar regions to hot springs. This tiny animal has survived challenges like freezing (&extreme cold), boiling (& extreme heat), crushing (& extreme high pressure), dehydration and absence of food for more than 30 years. They are also not affected by radiation. In an experiment, scientist sent these tiny organisms into space, where they were left in vacuum for 10 days. After their return, 68% of these organisms were found to have survived this impossible challenge - giving a testimonial of their tremendous endurance capabilities. New research by Oxford University & Harvard Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics have concluded that Tardigrade will survive, until the death of sun.
Tardigrades can suspend their metabolism, like previously described roundworms. Scientists are trying to transfer the ability of Tardigrades, to suffer tremendous physical onslaught and survive – to human cells. Research have shown that Tardigrades have a protein, which protects them from X rays, known as –Dsup. This resilience to survive radiation have been transferred to human cells; which showed reduction of X ray damage by 40% of the initial extent. These studies have been done, with target to make the human race more immune to radiation hazards. It is believed that further research, will enable scientists to learn more about techniques, by which the resilience of these tiny animals can be transferred to human race.
The immortal jellyfish - Jellyfish is a 5 mm long immortal animal that can live forever. A very important factor, which contributes to this property, is the ability to regenerate its cells. The scientific name of this animal is Turritopsis dohrnii. In their adulthood, when their reproductive roles are completed, they revert back to their previous form of juvenile polyps. The reversal of their form to a sexually immature stage, serves an important function. Their cells start growing again by many changes occurring in their body. The bodies shrink along with retraction of their tentacles. Sinking to the depth of the sea floor, their life cycle starts again from an earlier stage. These events can occur again and again, allowing them to lead infinite lives. The changes seen are unique in animal kingdom.
When these tiny animal’s existence is threatened, they adopt by taking a blob like shape and adheres to any surface, present in warm sea waters. This is done, so that the cells present can change into different types. Muscle cells can be derived from nerve cells & muscle cells can change into reproductive cells. The endurance of these jellyfish is directly related to their adaptive capabilities to their environments, by the changes they produce in their bodies. The discovery of this incredible was done in 1883, in Pacific Ocean, but its unique regenerative capabilities were discovered more than a century later in mid 1990s.
These jellyfish have spread throughout the seas, across the world, via ships travelling through them. Still scientists are unable to determine the age of the oldest immortal jellyfish, due to absence of any methods to do so. The definitive way, this jellyfish can die is, when it gets eaten by a fish or a disease affects the jelly. There are many scientists, who are studying this immortal jellyfish. They believe, once they are able to understand the mechanism by which a jellyfish rejuvenates, the same quality can be used to make humans immortals.
Although there are some country based variance, but we all have some idea about the lifespan of a human being. But there are individuals, who have defied all logic & science based rationale and lived unbelievably long life, as many folklore and urban legends describe. Although hard to believe, but many of these people had their life well documented. One of person who fits the description, mentioned previously is – Li Ching Yuen. The life of Chinese national Li Ching Yuen has evoked diverse emotions from people, who have heard about him. The feelings have ranged from awe to outright disbelief.
The 7 feet tall practitioner of Qigong – an ancient art, which is believed to promote health and strengthen “life energy” by physical exercises, breathing control & meditation; was also a herbalist. He died in 1933 aged 256 years old. Investigators have been able, to find evidence and records of his birth in 1677 AD, corroborating the stated facts. Li himself claimed to be much younger, saying that he was born in 1734, which made him only 197 years old, at the time of his death.
Li Ching Yuen is believed to had a diet containing goji berries, rice wine and herbs – which he himself searched for. He described, how he had learnt, the secrets of long life from a 500 years old hermit living in a mountain – who had instructed him about herbal based diet and Qigong exercises. As per records, in 1749 Li Ching Yuen became a martial arts instructor in Chinese Army, at the age of 72 years. By the time of his death he had already married 24 times and produced over 200 descendants.
Many people may be sceptical about his age at the time of his death, but there are multiple evidence to support facts that he indeed lived up to his reputation. The National Revolutionary Army General – Yang Sen & Chinese warlord Wu Peifu both, had invited Li Ching Yuen to their respective homes (in early part of 20th century), for knowing the secret of his surviving for a so long period. It was from General Yang Sen, (who was a loyal supporter of the famous leader of Republic of China – Chiang Kai -Shek), that knowledge & vast information about Li Ching Yuen’s life comes. These facts include – date of birth of Li Ching Yuen in 1677, his habit of collection of different herbs and his previous service in the Army.
Records of Chinese government congratulating Li on his 150th birthday in 1827 and again on his 200th birthday in 1877 were discovered by Wu Peifu. Even popular media of the west like – The New York Times and Time magazine had written articles about him, with The New York Times also reporting that, many very old men who lived in neighbourhood of Li Ching Yuen had mentioned that in their childhood, their respective grandfathers had told them that they knew Li as a grown-up man, from the time they were children. The Time magazine stated that the secret of long life of Li were due to the following reasons, that he advised – Walk sprightly like a pigeon, keep a quite heart, sit like a tortoise and sleep like a dog.
In the International Space Station, a digitized DNA sequences of the world’s greatest scientists and artists has been stored. This has been done to safeguard humanity, in case of the world suffering from global catastrophe which wipes out all the life forms, including the human species. The list is of people whose DNA have been stored in this form is very diverse in nature & includes professionals from all walk of life. This includes – famous physicist Stephen Hawking, musician – Eric Johnson, comedian --- Stephen Colbert and many more. A list of humanity’s achievement and personal messages from people of the Earth has also been stored for the same reason. All these things have been kept safely in International Space Station with the plan to resurrect humanity by cloning procedures - by using the digitized DNA, in case of a doomsday scenario.
Parabiosis is a process, in which organ systems (usually circulatory system) of two different living organisms are joined together by surgical procedure, for experimental study, of physiological effects. It tries to use the same principle, which conjoined twins use in uterus; except the fact that in this case 2 different animals, like rats are joined together in a shared circulatory system—in a controlled laboratory atmosphere. Studies have been done, where an old rat’s circulatory system was joined to a young rat & changes evaluated. In old rats of the laboratory, this artificially induced blood transfusion produced many changes – they became stronger, smarter & healthier. The outer appearance also improved, in form of the fur becoming more shiny.
These findings have encouraged similar trials in human beings. Various ailments in older people, have been targeted for cure or improvement, by transfusion of blood of younger people. These are diseases related to ageing. Studies for improvement of Alzheimer’s disease by transfusion of young blood has been undertaken in California. The scientific community is deeply divided on use of Young blood transfusion, to treat diseases of the old people by transfusing blood of younger individuals. Many believe this procedure has the ability to turn back the ageing clock by returning good health and beautiful appearance of youth; but others are quite sceptical about this experimental procedure.
Certain companies have come up, which offers young blood transfusion, to people who can afford this procedure. This is usually rich people, as the procedure costs anywhere from $8000 to $ 285,000 per person, depending on the centre. This relatively new procedure has been reportedly helpful in treating Alzheimer’s disease, as stated by certain individuals. Studies are undergoing in China, for evaluation of this therapy for improvement in neurologic features, of people who had suffered acute stroke.
The area, which has evoked strong controversy, is the use of young blood transfusion in field of aesthetic medicine/aesthetic surgery, for attaining eternal youth. Besides evoking a strong semblance to ancient vampire stories, the use of donated blood for relatively trifling matter – as beauty therapy, is not supported by many. Finally, the risks and complications of blood transfusion needs to be balanced against the probable benefits. Only time will decide, if this latest miracle solution will provide the expected solutions of longer & healthier life + eternal youth, that many so desperately seek.
The ultimate goal of all the old emperors and dictators have been, to cheat death. This can be done by avoiding death together or bringing back people who have already died. The ancient Egyptians mummified their Pharaoh’s and had their own set of beliefs and tradition regarding afterlife. In the modern world, bringing back the dead to life was first mentioned in the novel – Frankenstein, written by Mary Shelly & published in 1st January 1818 AD. The story describes how a young scientist named Victor Frankenstein, brings back to life - a dead man, by his scientific experiments. Mary Shelly, besides being a wife of well known poet Percy Shelly, was herself a gifted writer and her works are a testimonial to this fact. In real life incidence imitating art, Mary Shelly kept her dead husband’s heart with herself for 30 years after his death. Was she contemplating some strange experiments like her novel’s protagonist? Maybe not, but the question does raise intrigue about the various possibilities.
Cut to the 21st century. A biotech company in the United States, is trying the impossible. Philadelphia based Bioquark is planning to regrow neurons, in brain dead patients to bring them back to life. In plain terms, Brain death is the complete loss of brain function to the point, where sustaining life is no longer possible. Although brain dead people have lost their capacity to breathe and are technically dead, but the ability to circulate blood, excretion of waste products & ability to carry a foetus in the womb is still present.
The strategy formulated for the above mentioned goal, includes nerve stimulation techniques along with injection of protein blend, laser therapy & implanting stem cells to central nervous system of the subject of the experiment. All this would be done with the hope that new cells in the nervous system would grow & interconnect with each other, so that Brain starts functioning once again. It is hoped this would bring back brain dead people back to life. The technique is rather new and scientific community is divided over the issue. Besides raising many ethical, legal and social issues; the final result or the possible outcome still remains a debatable issue.
The future prospects described are more in domain of science fiction, than real possibilities; but some select scientist really believe that these events are going to materialise very soon. Some of these hard to believe facts are ---- Use of 3D printers to create human organs, which can be used to replace diseased or damaged body organs, without need for a compatible donor. Similarly genetic engineering would be used to reverse or prevent the ageing process in a cellular level.
Another form of immortality postulated is by uploading a person’s consciousness or “digital mind” into a computer, after death of the physical body. This digital mind can also be uploaded in highly evolved android (robots). This kind of electric immortality, would be available to only few select rich people in the beginning, but later on would become affordable for most ordinary people.
Another method to cheat death is by Cryonic Suspension. This is a method in which, a recently deceased person’s body is frozen and stored, in extremely low body temperatures, to prevent the decomposition of the body. The supporters of this method believe that in near future, medical science would find cure to many incurable diseases - that may have caused death of a person, in the present day. If these people have their bodies carefully preserved, then it would be possible to bring them back to life.
Since time immemorial, Emperors and ordinary folks have strived for immortality. Some like Alexander, Napoleon & Genghis Khan found immortality in fame & many like Hitler found their share in infamy, but these immortality are only figuratively present, but not in reality. Thanks to advance in science & technology, the privilege of living on for ever, may soon be bestowed on ordinary mortals. Paradoxically time, which has been the greatest killer, may soon manifest itself again in a different role – as the greatest healer.