When it comes to business projections, Silicon Valley is the home of the tall story. Unbridled ambitions, unfettered thinking and a belief in the boundless potential of technology produce a steady crop of outlandish expectations. Yet even by Silicon Valley standards the prediction that there are people alive today who will live for 1,000 years is extreme. It conjures less the bold pronouncement of a leading biotech pioneer than the ramblings of a mad professor.
At the end of a winding dirt track off Bear Creek Road, a few miles from Los Gatos in California’s Santa Cruz mountains is the home of Aubrey de Grey, the 53-year-old English research scientist from whom the claim originates. It looks exactly like the place you would expect a mad professor to live. The house is faded, to say the least. In a ramshackle kitchen an unwashed frying pan sits on an ancient-looking electric hob; empty beer bottles are clustered by the sink in which is stacked a heap of saucepans and utensils. Next door is one of several sitting rooms: a wall of windows facing the front drive and the thick-forested canyon beyond; a double mattress on a stained carpet; a bed sheet pinned up to block some of the morning light. The space opens into the largest room in the house — a long cavernous hall with high vaulted ceilings — designed, my host says, by the architect of San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts. At one end is a huge open stone-and-brick fireplace; at the other a 4ft pile of rubbish — floorboards, pulled-up carpet, panelling and electrical wire. De Grey is gradually renovating the place, he says. He is at an early stage. He wears a green hoodie over an olive shirt, jeans and worn black trainers. His long greying hair is tied in a ponytail and an expansive dark brown beard reaches almost to his stomach. He beckons me through to the “sun room”, his favourite spot — two wicker armchairs either side of a glass-top table on which sits his laptop and an open bottle of IPA beer. It is 11.30am on a crisp Saturday morning. As we start to talk, I can see my breath forming clouds in the air in front of me.
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. Most approaches aimed at combating ageing focus on arresting the harmful byproducts of metabolism, he says. These cause cellular damage and decay, which, in turn, accumulate to trigger the age-related disorders, such as cancer or dementia, that tend to finish us off.
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