Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Book review: Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality

Arpan K. Banerjee
Solihull, England

Cover of Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality by Venki Ramakrishnan

The subjects of ageing, death, and immortality have long preoccupied human thoughts and culture. The ancient Egyptians practiced mummification out of a belief in an afterlife. Buddhists and Hindus believe in reincarnation with the immortal soul living on in another body. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam also have rites and rituals that tend to a person’s immortal soul and the possibility of the body rising from the dead.

In Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality, Venki Ramakrishnan, past president of the Royal Society and a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and expert on the structure and function of ribosomes, takes us on a journey through the science of the aging process and the human quest for immortality.

The book starts with an introduction to cell biology and genetics, which underpin the science of cellular aging. Darwin’s elucidation of evolutionary processes and biological and genetic advances by biologist JBS Haldane, statistician and polymath Ronald Fisher, and Nobel Prize-winning transplantation biologist Peter Medawar have helped to explain why cell death occurs. The experiments of Hermann Muller showing the harmful effects of X-rays on DNA have also begun to unravel the mysteries of what causes cellular aging and death.

Alexis Carrell, the French surgeon and father of vascular surgery, was interested in the subject of immortality. He incorrectly believed that chicken embryo cell cultures could be kept alive indefinitely. This idea took three decades to disprove, when American cell biologist Leonard Hayflick showed that cells only replicate a finite number of times. The roles of telomeres and telomerase are described, including the delicate balance between cancer inducement and degenerative disease, depending on the length of the telomeres.

John Gurdon’s work on cloning and the role of stem cells in cell regeneration makes for fascinating reading, with scientists now trying to prevent aging by reprogramming cells. Gurdon, a British developmental biologist, shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2012 with Shinya Yamanaka for demonstrating that mature cells can be reprogrammed to be pluripotent.

The genes TOR (Target of Rapamycin) 1 and TOR 2 have now been sequenced by Michael Hall and his team. These genes are involved in control of cell growth in response to nutrients and may be involved in the aging process.

A particularly interesting chapter describes attempts to develop new ways to prolong life and try to create immortality, such as cryopreservation of bodies or brains. The anti-aging industry, in some sectors, has now become big business.

The book concludes with philosophical issues. If people live to an extreme age, society will struggle to finance pensions and healthcare. People will have to work longer; yet, the author argues, ironically, the most productive years of scientists, writers, and inventors are in their youth. Advancing age will not result in greater creativity in these years, although there are always exceptions; for example, Karl Sharpless, the double Nobel Laureate in Chemistry who received his second Nobel Prize for work he started when he was already sixty. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. In their senior years, people rely more on experience and connections, doing familiar things rather than having the great original ideas that occur more often in the young.

The book is well-written, referenced, and engaging. The personal anecdotes and information about pioneering scientists and their discoveries serve as an important historical chronicle of research in a field of study that will ultimately affect us all.

Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality
Venki Ramakrishnan, Hodder Press, UK (2024)
ISBN 9781529369243

DR. ARPAN K. BANERJEE qualified in medicine at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School. London. He was a consultant radiologist in Birmingham 1995–2019. He was President of the radiology section of the RSM 2005–2007 and on the scientific committee of the Royal College of Radiologists 2012–2016. He was Chairman of the British Society for the History of Radiology 2012–2017. He is Chairman of ISHRAD. He is author/co-author of papers on a variety of clinical, radiological, and medical historical topics and seven books, including Classic Papers in Modern Diagnostic Radiology (2005) and The History of Radiology (OUP 2013).

Spring 2024



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.