A recent article on Aubrey de Grey, in which he is presented more in the mode of amiable fellow next door than the mode of instigator of the SENS rejuvenation research movement, reminded me that planned obsolescence is very much an anticipated goal for de Grey. He has for a while now seen a "retreat into glorious obscurity" ahead, perhaps wisely given the way movements tend to grow into unruly children, disrespectful of their founders. We'll see whether it actually comes to pass or not, given that a diet of interesting success is always a challenge to set to one side, but it is also true that going on two decades is a long time to be working what is essentially the same demanding, even consuming job. Still, look at folk like George Church and Craig Venter; there is no shortage of opportunity for third acts in this life. Note that the short article linked here is published by the Financial Times, and so you'll probably have to employ the usual stratagems to bypass their paywall; Google is your friend in this, at least.
Fifteen years ago, de Grey was lead author of a paper in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences which claimed the "indefinite postponement of aging . . . may be within sight". Since then, he says, his position among gerontologists - the scientists of ageing and its related ills - has changed from sidelined dilettante to one of the discipline's most influential and public voices. While his science may now be more widely accepted, his pronouncements of impending immortality remain unpopular among his peers. Their squeamishness is unsupported by the evidence, he says. It belies an intellectual dishonesty that has at its heart a deeply emotional - and increasingly erroneous - attachment to the inevitability of death, according to de Grey.
In some ways de Grey's tumbledown mountain retreat seems a fitting castle for this self-appointed "spiritual leader of what I regard as the world's most important mission". To most eyes, the sprawling four-bedroom property falls on the wrong side of the line dividing shabby kitsch-and-chic from basic decrepitude. "The most expensive thing I had owned before this was a laptop. I don't like too much modernity and artifice, I like to be surrounded by mellow things." De Grey's asceticism amounts to more than a disregard for modern interiors and a voluminous beard. While many visionaries come to Silicon Valley to make a fortune, de Grey gave one away. In 2011, his mother - "the formative influence" of his life; his father left before he was born - died. De Grey, her only child, inherited her £10.5m fortune from two Chelsea houses she bought in 1953 and 1963 for a total, he estimates, of £30,000. De Grey took roughly £2.1m for himself, most of which, after inheritance tax, he spent on his home. The remainder, £8.4m, he donated to SENS. When his fiancée arrives he hopes, in time, to "retreat into glorious obscurity" with her, pulling back from a busy speaking schedule that takes him around the world to publicise his work.
It is in the nature of revolutions to bury those who led the first charge. The wages of wild success are indeed obscurity, and fighting that truth seems futile; a matter of standing against the tide. If you start a movement to change the world, and people can still easily pick you out from the crowd of change-makers and supporters fifty years later, then I'd say you didn't do so well. The point of the exercise is to create a sweeping wave of leaders, viewpoints, and endeavors that up-ends the present inadequate system to produce radical improvements. The point of the exercise is to make yourself irrelevant as rapidly as possible, in other words. Human nature being what it is, no matter how hard it was to convince the first few people, and no matter how much work was needed in the early days, the talking heads of the world will later agree that it was obvious in hindsight, anyone could have done it, and weren't those people in the second wave of activities, ten years in, far more important anyway? Validation in this scenario is something that you have to accomplish for yourself, which is worth thinking about while considering one's own efforts and future. Do the work because it is important to your eyes, and because you want to, not for any other reason.
It is true that there is a great deal left to accomplish in order to achieve the technical goal of robust mouse rejuvenation, through prototype implementations of therapies that repair the seven classes of cell and tissue damage that cause aging. The first such therapy, senescent cell clearance, seems a sure thing now, given the state of funding and the field. But the others? Still in the labs, some quite a way from realization. Still, SENS has won, the movement came into being. It is bigger than any one group of people, even now, while a sizable fraction of the necessary laboratory work remains coordinated by the SENS Research Foundation. The goals of SENS will survive the retirement or exodus of any given handful of people, and there are a number of alternative SENS-like formulations out there now, backed by their own advocates and researchers, such as the Hallmarks of Aging. The high-level concept of treating aging by reverting its distinct causes is now spread far enough not to fail. The next twenty years will be a matter of various viewpoints and implementations competing on the only metric that matters, which is the ability to produce rejuvenation in patients.
The battles of tomorrow will be fought over advancing the most plausible approaches more rapidly to the front of the queue, and obtaining the broadest possible funding and adoption by research groups. Later, the battles will be fought over ways to drive existing therapies into low-cost mass production, bypassing the existing regulatory system in favor of something simpler that will save vastly more lives, enabling widespread deployment of rejuvenation therapies both within and beyond the wealthier parts of the world as rapidly as possible. The very first seeds of that future are in progress today, but first things first. The construction of a new industry of rejuvenation biotechnology, from start to finish, is something that will span more than one career - though of course the hope is that it will not span more than a single lifetime, no matter how long it takes. Those who finish will be vastly more numerous, and an entirely different set of people, from those who start. That is the way of things.