By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
Nearing death among his grieving disciples, the Buddha said: “All compound things must come to dissolution.” He was in much pain from a terminal illness. He went into deep meditation as was his custom and died peacefully. His insight was true. The problem with the failure of a system is its complexity, made up of parts connected together, which come apart usually at the joints after forces inside and outside the system have pressed on long enough. Yet, our bodies and other things need not break down too soon if the roots of longevity have grown deeply.
You may want to remind me now of the saying from Heraclitus, “Ta panta rhei kai ouden menei,” meaning “Everything flows, nothing stands still.” If so, flow and change will bring about a breakdown of anything eventually. Even rocks dissolve to sand or melt down in earth’s deep cauldrons. Physicists call this phenomenon the law of entropy, or second law of thermodynamics: if left alone, all systems tend to greater disorder. Popularly it’s called Murphy’s Law: “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.” If so, let us build well what we design so that nothing can go wrong, using good information, also called negative entropy.
Information, enabled by design or evolution, allows systems, such as living things, to persist and multiply their forms, defeating at least for a time the tendency to dissolution, decay, and death. Genes, encoded packets of information and control, have persisted for billions of years on Earth, and eventually gave rise to thinking beings, Democritus, Galileo, Newton, Einstein, you and me. Living things are generators of negative entropy, which they absorb from the sun’s radiant energy or from other organisms and convert to tissue and action.
The absorption of negative entropy begins with plants converting sunlight to sugars using chlorophyll in photosynthesis: water molecules are split and the hydrogen produced is combined with carbon dioxide. The oxygen in water is released in the atmosphere, making activity possible for animals, which pollinate plants or eat their fruits and distribute the seeds far and wide. In turn, the animals produce fertilizers with their droppings and dead bodies, which feed the plants. This is all part of the web of life on this planet, a persistent structure, held together with the strong bonds of supply and demand, like any good economy.
Bonds hold together systems from atoms, to molecules, to tissues and bodies, to marriages, to families, to social organizations, to nations and all humanity, loosely or tightly. Bonds are like welding on metal parts. More bonds, stronger bonds, result in tighter systems of greater longevity. We know that the heavier atoms, much less abundant than hydrogen or helium, are born in the cores of stars, which release them as dust clouds in supernova explosions. Our planet and our bodies were formed from such elements: oxygen, carbon, iron, calcium, phosphorus. These are durable atoms, we thought they last forever. But they don’t. Atoms puff out of existence too after many billions of years.
Looking now at how atoms are arranged into molecules and crystals, we find certain arrays are more stable and durable than others. Such are the genes and DNA in living things, which are stable, but also persist through billions of years through replication, making copies of their forms. Genes are immortal, while we who host them live only for a flash of time. Steel does not rust, because it is made of arrays of large iron atoms, with smaller carbon atoms tightly filling in the spaces between them; thus, oxygen atoms cannot combine with iron atoms producing iron oxides—rust. The strongest known material is the diamond, with pressure and heat a compactly formed carbon crystal array.
Even better for longevity than strong bonding and compactness, is simplicity, a unitized body as Volvo engineers declare. If a thing is in one piece, it does not require bonding. A thing made up of many parts breaks down more easily. The failure rate in products increases exponentially with the number of parts that make it up. Cars and appliances failed less often when they were made with fewer features and components. I once drove a 1953 Dodge for many years without any problems. The car was sturdily built, Dodge was famous then for reliability and strength, but it was also simpler, without much on board electronics or pollution control devices. People of an older generation remember the good old American refrigerators and other appliances that worked for decades. They were not efficient with electricity, as the old cars were not thrifty with gas, but they lasted because they were simple.
Among organisms, the amoeba is simple indeed, made up of one cell, compared to the trillions of cells in our bodies. The amoeba survives as long as it has food and a benign environment. When it has grown enough, it splits into more amoebas, each one of them immune to aging.
In your designs then, seek simplicity, a main root of longevity. Surely, we are tempted by customers and our own desires to add more features and functions to what we construct. We arrange our own lives this way, wanting this comfort or that luxury, until we have cluttered and congested every nook and cranny of our existence. Let us resist these tendencies. We should go with Henry David Thoreau to Walden Pond to find simplicity, to discover our inner steel, diamond, and gold.
Is there a disadvantage to longevity in having a structure built of one piece, hard and inflexible? Yes, when forces pummel it for too long with crushing or sheer intensity. A palm tree bends and survives in a hurricane, while a pine breaks and is destroyed. A concrete structure is hard and tough, but we add expansion joints every few feat to allow for flexing when it gets hot or cold. We also mix in steel components in a concrete structure which give it flexibility and extra strength. Joints have their uses in longevity, although they may fail on occasion. Joints allow for the movement of parts, so the structure gives and does not break in the onslaught of outside forces.
Strong forces at play on our structures will sometimes break a part in it. To overcome and to survive we can employ redundant design, good maintenance and re-growth, as most living things do. We have two of each: eyes, kidneys, ears, nostrils, testicles, and even brains, the right and left hemisphere. People have survived with one brain hemisphere damaged or excised. Some animals grow new tails or limbs. We heal wounds in our tissues by growing new cells to replace those destroyed. Even the brain regenerates to some degree, something we thought was impossible.
Product designers do not follow such natural techniques for longevity like redundancy and regeneration of parts. It is cheaper to replace the product with a new and improved one bearing a 90-day warranty, made cheaply in China or some other developing country with low wages. It is also fairly easy with products to provide maintenance with part replacement in a garage or shop, if the cost of labor is acceptable. A well designed and built product can last far longer than most people realize with good maintenance. After twenty five years, I still own a Mercedes 240D with 360,000 miles on the original engine and transmission, which runs perfectly, provided diesel fuel is cheap. My daughters have owned a Ford Taurus wagon with 240,000 miles and a Volvo 240DL with 250,000 miles. Mercedes and Volvos have a deserved reputation for longevity. They are built with sturdy components with substantial rust proofing. While their old cars were running just fine, my daughters sold them to get newer models. With continued good maintenance, I fully expect to be driving my old Mercedes twenty five years from now when I am 100.
We can provide better maintenance for our bodies too than we have given them in the past. I hope to learn to care as well for my own body as I do for my car. Some time in the future, stem cells will enable us to grow new parts for our bodies that we have lost to accident, disease or aging. We will also slow down the aging process in all our cells, prolonging life indefinitely. We can already prevent some aging by consuming sufficient anti-oxidant food and supplements: cranberries, blueberries, pomegranates, concord grapes, citrus fruits, and whole grains. Free oxygen radicals cause our cells to rust, damaging our tissues, and anti-oxidants control them to a degree. We reduce metabolic damage also by reducing calories in our food without sacrificing good nutrition. The benefits of a diet thus restricted are well documented by numerous studies with animals and a few studies with humans. Longevity has been increased by 30-80% in test animals, such as mice. To see equivalent results on humans, we will have to wait about 50 years for conclusive experiments.
Calorie restricted diets present us with a paradox. Traditionally, we have been accustomed to consider eating well as eating a lot. Mothers want babies to be chubby, expecting them to be happier and more resistant to disease with the extra fat. We are appalled by images of skeletal victims coming out of concentration camps, images of poor children with distended bellies suffering from berry-berry in Africa and Asia, videos of starving people in drought stricken areas of the world, trembling hands outstretched for a morsel of food. Yet, our bodies perform better, stay healthier, last longer, when they get the minimum amount of food to meet energy needs only, but packed with sufficient nutrition. In World War II, the U.S. army experimented with volunteers to find out the minimum rations soldiers needed to march and maintain body weight. Rations were reduced in increments while the subjects walked on treadmills. The soldiers steadily became thinner, until they lost so much muscle mass that they looked to be skin and bones; then the rations were gradually increased until weight loss stopped and the soldiers were healthy again. These weight maintenance rations in calories were as much as you and I are likely to have for our dinner only.
We may decide to have dinner only for the day; or better still, just have breakfast or lunch with the required calories and nutrients needed by the body during an active day. But why does calorie restriction work to prolong life and health? What biological mechanism is responsible for this striking phenomenon set to perplex your mother? Your mother visiting you will yell, “Oy vey! You’re skin and bones. Eat, eat.” Indeed, eat well, but eat food low in calories, but high in nutrition, such as sprouts, non-fat dairy, colorful vegetables and fruits, lean cuts of meat, poultry breasts, and deep-ocean fish. If you can maintain your lean diet long enough, your body may activate a gene known as SIRT-1, according to Dr. David Sinclair of Harvard, now an officer of Sirtris Corporation.
Besides calorie restriction, research studies show we can also trigger SIRT-1 by ingesting the compound resveratrol, extracted from red wine and some other plant products. Mice consuming large quantities of resveratrol became sleek, slim and powerfully athletic. Dr. Sinclair is now testing in clinical trials SRT501, an improved compound of resveratrol for the treatment of diabetes. Sirtris Corporation is also developing other compounds, much more powerful than resveratrol, to trigger the anti-aging gene. I theorize that SIRT-1 delays aging and prolongs life until food is plentiful again in the animal’s habitat so it can fatten up, breed, and produce offspring who can also eat enough and breed in turn. If this theory is correct, animals living on a restricted calorie diet should have less sexual appetite. A price has to be paid for longevity.
Instead of paying such a price, we may decide to build better bodies and parts in the first place, as we do in good manufacturing plants. We test parts and structures in our laboratories to prove their reliability and longevity. We also carefully inspect products during assembly to spot defects before we ship them out. Toyota, Honda, and Nissan do such quality control and are famous for their reliable cars. My brother drove a Toyota pickup for many years and sold it with over 200,000 miles still in excellent running condition. Toyota workers are empowered to stop the assembly line at any time if they spot a defect. Toyota and other manufacturers of durable products also subscribe to the philosophy of kaizen in manufacturing: a process of small but continuous improvements in quality. Nature does kaizen too, called evolution, and stops a defective fetus from being born in most cases. Animals in herds usually perish quickly at the mouths of predators if they are weak or defective. Evolution eliminates species which cannot compete well enough, while propagating those varieties possessing an advantage.
Species longevity is not the same as individual longevity. Species that live long usually leave few offspring. Predators are naturally fewer in numbers than prey species, such as rabbits or rodents, which, with short life spans, rely on high reproductive rates to survive as a species. Grass is everywhere, but giant sequoias that can live for thousand of years are restricted to the U.S. Northwest coastal regions. The olive tree grows wild and is widely cultivated in arid areas of the Mediterranean region and also can live for thousand of years. Like the redwood, the olive has strong defenses against disease, rot, fire, and insects, but also the capacity to do well with little water and poor soil. In animals such abilities are identified as a strong immune system.
We should not be surprised that plant immunities can transfer into our bodies with good nutrition. Olives and olive oil prolong the lives of the Cretan Greeks. Other plants which transfer immune qualities are dandelions, parslane, garlic, onions, and ginger. Immunity to disease is a powerful root of longevity. It may explain the long life of some land tortoise, which may live up to 150 years, or the Amazon parrot, which may get to be 80 years. My father lived to the age of 100 and 17 days, and my mother to 92. They rarely got sick from infections or diseases. My aunt Lulu never got ill from colds or flues; she lived to 90. Her immune system made her impervious to viruses. She also lived a simple life, married to one man.
By comparison, the design and operation of the NASA space shuttle is very complicated. I understand the space shuttle is the most complex artifact ever built by humans. Think of it. The shuttle has its own rockets for maneuvering in space, but it is boosted there by a giant LOX rocket and two auxiliary solid-fuel ones. To me the shuttle has always appeared like something out of Rube Goldberg’s or W. Heath Robinson’s drawings: an implausible contraption of silly complexity. What do you think about a rubber ring in the solid-fuel rocket causing the Challenger explosion and a piece of insulating foam downing Columbia? I expect the simpler spacecraft of Burt Rutan and others will have better longevity.
We can achieve better longevity by isolating something and putting it in a state of suspended existence or stasis. It’s what we do when we throw a stake into the freezer. Things don’t change much when frozen solid. Astronauts going to far planets may exist after a fashion in a state of suspended animation. Upon arriving at their destination, automatic systems warm them up so they can resume their functions in exploring a new world. The ancient Egyptians dreamed up something similar for their Pharaohs with the art of mummification.
Cryonics or mummification is not really what I have in mind for us. In reaching for longevity or even immortality, I’d rather follow the way of Socrates, Jesus, or the Buddha. Nothing material lasts for long. Only universal truths, like the Pythagorean Theorem, are outside of time and place. We could communicate with aliens easily using such theorems or the Fibonacci series of numbers. Such truths have existed before there were humans, before the universe began, and will be around after everything material is gone. We have longevity as long as we appreciate and discover great truths in mathematics, science, or the arts. Mona Lisa’s smile is eternal.
Let us assume that our souls are immortal since they derive from an eternal source of life. In that case, we come to this planet at conception to experience vivid sensations, exciting adventures, and formidable challenges in the pursuit of our goals. Thus we are tested, as materials are tested in a scientific laboratory. If we pass the testing like Hindus, we move up the ladder of spirituality after separation from our bodies. Otherwise, we are given another chance to succeed. In any case, our souls are indestructible and powerfully affect the longevity of our bodies. The strongest root of all for a long life is the devotion of our spirits to the Source Eternal.