Science Fiction and Fantasy | An Indian Experience

Long Life And A Pot Of Gold An article by Ravindra B Ghooi |
Issue 1

Long Life And A Pot Of Gold by Ravindra B Ghooi

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Since times immemorial man has lusted for many things. Of these, a long life and gold have been the foremost. It is lucky he achieved neither, for nothing could have been more disastrous. Superficially though it sounds nice but neither a long life nor gold is compatible with happiness.

People who made it their business to search for both these were more of charlatans than anything else, and what they practiced, a swindle. Alchemy was that science (?) and it was devoted to the search for the “elixir of life” and the “philosopher’s stone”. The elixir features in every mythology and in India it was known as Amrut. Legend has it that anyone receiving the potion would live as long as he or she desired. The “Philosopher’s Stone” had the capacity to convert any base metal into gold on contact.

Scientists are now on the verge of finding the elixir, though it won’t be in liquid form and may not be sweet either. They have also found a method to convert base metals into gold, though they won’t use a stone to do that. Will either of these help the common man is a question that is not easy to answer, but worth examining.

The human being has an average life span of 80 to 100. Most of the people are going to meet their maker within 80 years of their birth while very few will live beyond that. The span of life is believed to be dictated by a string of nucleotides at the top of every chromosome known as telomere. With every cell division the chromosomes and the telomere replicate, but a part of the telomere gets broken.

After 80 to 100 replications of the chromosomes, the telomere is totally exhausted and the chromosome can no longer replicate. This is believed to be the signal for an end to cellular replication and the decline sets in. Certain organisms reproduce by simple replication of the cell, and in these, the telomere does not appear to shorten with each cell division. An enzyme called the telomerase protects the telomere; hence such an enzyme could provide the key to interminable replication of cells.

The telomere-telomerase system could be a primary target for assuring along life of say 500 years, which many scientists are working on. The one problem that has not yet been sorted out it the process of aging, and till this is achieved any attempt to prolong life could prove futile.

In life there are definite landmarks known as milestones. A baby starts walking at around 10 months, is weaned at around 1.5 years, it begins to mature at 12 years of age and it is mature at around 16 to 18 years of life. The prime of life is between 25 and 35 after which decline sets in. By 60 the individual has lost a lot of biological capacities and is physically weakening. Organ system failures that often begin at as early as 35 may be complete by 80 and death takes place. This course of events holds good if diseases like cancer or cardiac insufficiency do not bring about death earlier.

When one increases the life span to say 500 years, the first thing that needs to be done is to move the last milestone from 80 and place it at500. This will effectively permit a person to live up to the desired 500 years, without disturbing the early milestones. This would, however, have some unfortunate consequences, in that, aging has neither been retarded nor prevented.

The possible methods of achieving this would be to provide a telomere of unduly longer chain of nucleosides, or to provide a protection to the telomere. A word of caution though, attempts to protect the telomere in mice has led to the formation of cancers. Since protected telomeres permit uncontrolled cell multiplication, the cell often behaves like a cancer cell.

A child with such manipulated chromosomal make-up will thus begin walking at 10 months and mature at 16 to 18 years of age. The individual will reproduce till the age of around 40 if female and even 60 if male. Organ system failures will be widespread by 80 and the individual will be bed-ridden by 100 if not by 80. The person would have very poor eye sight, poor hearing, bad digestion, impaired memory and other mental faculties along with severely affected mobility, and all other problems associated with highly advanced age. Yet because of the modified chromosomes, the person would be alive for the next 400 years.

In Fig. 1 are shown the important milestones for the individual, which the individual experiences presently.

4 5

Fig. 1

The figure shows the milestones for a typical healthy woman. The five milestones shown are 1 – birth, 2- menarche, 3- menopause, 4 – debility and 5 – death. In the first model of increased life span the last milestone is shifted to 500, and the initial milestones are left undisturbed. The resultant life is shown in Figure 2.

1 2

Fig. 2

In this model the last four hundred years will probably spent in bed as an invalid, sans teeth, sans sight, sans sense and sans everything. It is doubtful if anyone in right senses would prefer to remain alive for five hundred years, if the last four hundred or so years are physically and mentally non-productive. For the society too, keeping a person alive for such a long time would be merely a burden with no advantages of any sort. Clearly there has to be some readjustments of the milestones.

A theoretical possibility exists in which all the milestones are stretched as shown in the figure 3.


1 2
4 5

Fig. 3

The typical female will then have the menarche at the age of around 75, and will be reproductively active till the age of 225 and would become debilitated only at around 450 years of age to finally die at 500. This overall stretching is a greater possibility if genetic manipulation is achieved. This could be achieved by an overall slowing of all life processes, by a factor of 5.

In this model, the child will be totally dependent on its mother for about 30 to 40 years and may not be self-supporting till the age of around 60 years. Women might find this model particularly irking since gestation period might increase to around 50 months or above 4 years in any case, and menstrual bleeding for a month.

Such a manipulation might slow down all life processes and hence the whole human life could be something like a slow motion film. If that happens, then we would not have achieved much, since the earth’s seasons would not be slowed relative to human functions. Farmers would begin sowing after monsoons, but would complete the process only after the winter has set in.

Under the present life span old people hope not to be bedridden even for a day at the fag end of their lives. Some unfortunate ones have to spend months in bed, before they are summoned to the head office. After the life span is expanded to 500 years, it might become common for most individuals to spend a decade or two in a totally bedridden or worse, a comatose condition before going back to the pavilion.

Invariably when people talk of a long life they mean neither of the above models but a model in which the first few milestones such as walking and menarche are not affected. Only the menopause is selectively delayed, ensuring that the individual remains sexually active for an unduly long period of time. They would like to pick and choose certain phases of life being lengthened, certain phases left untouched and certain even curtailed. Such manipulation is not biologically possible, or so it seems at least today.

It is certainly not a pleasant thought that under the new advanced science we will be breast-feeding for the first 10 years of life and will be sucking our pink toes for the next ten. Probably the legal age for marriage would be raised to 100. If such are the effects of manipulating the life span, we had better leave it undisturbed.

Even if selective manipulation of milestones is possible, it will not be universally acceptable. For different activities there are different peak ages. Most Wimbledon champions are in the 20 to 25 years’ age group, while chess champions could be as old as 50. Some would like the period of peak mental performance that is now seen between 35 and 60 is extended from 35 to 450 without any other change, tennis champions would vociferously disagree with this.

If selective modifications were possible, it would be necessary to choose placement of milestones before birth (since modification is genetic) and not after it. Darwin has taught us that any changes made during the lifetime (or after birth) are not genetic. Thus parents will have to decide the desired placement of milestones without any knowledge as to which field the child may excel in.

The pitfalls would be that if parents choose a milestone placement best suited to a scientist and the child turns out to be a foot ball player, he is going to spend most of life after his playing age is over. The reverse would also be tragic, if a football player’s milestones are given to a scientist; he would be too immature for most of his life to do anything fruitful.

Given these difficulties, the whole proposition of stretching human life seems improbable. Whether one should monkey around with the span of life or not is a more basic issue rather than how one should do it. The first quest of man, for a long life does not seem to scientifically tenable and if man were to carefully examine it, not desirable either.

Next is the quest for gold. The conversion of base metals into gold is another such endeavour. Base metals though not so beautiful to look at, nor expensive, have their uses. The cheap and low melting lead is most suitable for piping and soldering, while the versatile iron can be converted into alloys which have very wide applications. Contrast these with gold, other than being a shinning metal gold has very little uses.

The economics of gold were however lost on our ancestors, and most kings and emperors thought that access to abundant gold was a priority. Alchemists exploited the love for gold and managed to live a life of plenty, sponging on these kings.

Most alchemists began as apprentices to senior alchemists, where they assisted the master in his mysterious experiments. The fact that neither the student nor the master had ever managed to produce even the smallest nugget of gold did not come in their way of setting up as master alchemists after their initial training.

With tiny kingdoms spread all over, ruled by men of little knowledge, it was easy to get the job of Royal Alchemist. Some patron kings did put a sort of timetable for the alchemist to prepare gold but this too could be circumvented. Usually before the deadline, the alchemist would disappear, only to surface in another kingdom nearby. The King there would be happy to extend to the alchemist an even higher salary when informed how the greedy ex patron king wanted all the gold so that he could capture all neighbouring kingdoms.

None of the kings ever realized what would happen to the cost of Gold once it could be made from base metals. Probably there were no economists who could explain to them the supply and demand theory that would decide the price of gold. Once gold was manufactured from base metals, it would no longer be rare; its price would always be in inverse proportion to its availability.

When tons and tons of gold would become available, gold would lose its lustre as a rare metal and price would eventually be decided by its industrial application. Even in olden days it was recognized that gold had very little use, in fact the metal was purely ornamental.

Gold is too soft to be used in making anything workable. Even while making something purely ornamental like jewellery it has to be mixed with baser metals. It is too ductile, too soft and too malleable to serve any useful industrial purpose. It is unfit even to be used in making cutlery, as spoons made out of gold would not serve the purpose they are made for.

No alchemist ever succeeded in making gold. Had anyone been successful, there would have been too much gold in the world. If the technology were economical, there would have been no way of keeping it secret. Everyone would have indulged in making gold, and the world would have ended up with excess gold and shortage of other metals.

One of the most important evidence that alchemy has not succeeded is the relative shortage of gold in the world. Had it succeeded then scientists would now be engaged in converting gold in base metals. It is not for nothing that gold is known as the dumb blonde member of the metal family.

True, scientists can transmute base metals into gold by using atomic energy to alter the basic atomic structure, yet the technology is so expensive that mining gold becomes a more viable option. Likewise scientists may prolong human life by moving the last milestone, but there may not be many takers.

The lure of a long life and gold still does not end. We still have people who work towards increasing the length of human life, and those who believe that Morarji Desai did have access to the formula to make gold. Of course there are scientific arguments against unscientific expectations, but no logical answers for illogical beliefs.

Cover pic by Robert Couse-Baker.

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A Pharmacologist who was trained at the Haffkine Institute, Bomaby and the Max Planck Institute, Gottingen, Ravindra B Ghooi works as an Advisor to a Contract Research Organization in Delhi. He is married and has a son who is in the Army.