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The Long and the Short of It: The Science of Life Span and Aging

The Long and the Short of It: The Science of Life Span and Aging

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by Jonathan Silvertown

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Everything that lives will die. That’s the fundamental fact of life. But not everyone dies at the same age: people vary wildly in their patterns of aging and their life spans—and that variation is nothing compared to what’s found in other animal and plant species. A giant fungus found in Michigan has been alive since the Ice Age, while a


Everything that lives will die. That’s the fundamental fact of life. But not everyone dies at the same age: people vary wildly in their patterns of aging and their life spans—and that variation is nothing compared to what’s found in other animal and plant species. A giant fungus found in Michigan has been alive since the Ice Age, while a dragonfly lives but four months, a mayfly half an hour. What accounts for these variations—and what can we learn from them that might help us understand, or better manage, our own aging?
With The Long and the Short of It, biologist and writer Jonathan Silvertown offers readers a witty and fascinating tour through the scientific study of longevity and aging. Dividing his daunting subject by theme—death, life span, aging, heredity, evolution, and more—Silvertown draws on the latest scientific developments to paint a picture of what we know about how life span, senescence, and death vary within and across species. At every turn, he addresses fascinating questions that have far-reaching implications: What causes aging, and what determines the length of an individual life? What changes have caused the average human life span to increase so dramatically—fifteen minutes per hour—in the past two centuries? If evolution favors those who leave the most descendants, why haven’t we evolved to be immortal? The answers to these puzzles and more emerge from close examination of the whole natural history of life span and aging, from fruit flies, nematodes, redwoods, and much more.
 The Long and the Short of It pairs a perpetually fascinating topic with a wholly engaging writer, and the result is a supremely accessible book that will reward curious readers of all ages.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"Potatoes live longer than kings," sighs ecologist Silvertown (An Orchard Invisible) in this whimsical book on aging. Aging is a complex topic, but the author mixes art, science, and humor to brew a highly readable concoction, presenting one aging theory after another. For instance, the "rate of living" hypothesis—live fast, die young—may be defunct, but Silvertown instills awe for the science that tried to make it work: researchers gauged the metabolism of water fleas by simply capturing them in jars, and counting the visible heartbeats in their near-transparent bodies. He also asks why postmenopausal women live longer than men. The latest studies say that in certain periods of human history, grandmothers who stopped reproducing channeled their energies and became useful secondary caregivers. But grandfathers who reproduced their entire lives apparently didn't feel pressured to become otherwise useful—and went "redundant." Indeed, reproduction comes with longevity tradeoffs throughout nature. But the ultimate answer to why we die likely has to do with Nobel Prize–winning immunologist Peter Medawar's casual observation that the aged make diminishing contributions to future generations. Silvertown's engaging tour through this enigmatic science ends wondering whether stem cell research will let us sidestep aging altogether. Who knows? (Nov.)
Robert E. Ricklefs
"Jonathan Silvertown writes with grace and wit about one of the most important issues of our time. Drawing from the most up-to-date aging research and his personal and very sympathetic observations on the human condition, Silvertown makes the science of longevity accessible to the lay reader and insightful to the practitioner--a  book that will be a pleasurable and informative read for everyone."


"Packed with cultural allusions and useful scientific shorthand."

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University of Chicago Press
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Read an Excerpt

The Long and the Short of It

The Science of Life Span and Aging

By Jonathan Silvertown


Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Silvertown
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-75789-6


Death and Immortality


Night is the morning's Canvas Larceny&mash;legacy&mash;Death, but our rapt attention To immortality


Sooner or later, everyone ponders their mortality. It is the privilege of youth to be oblivious to death, but the fate of old age to contemplate oblivion. Each person searches for answers in his or her own way, but eventually all ask the same questions: How long might I live, and why must I die? What rhyme or reason is there in aging and mortality? Long before science offered reasons, art sought a rhyme that would give meaning to the mysteries of life and death. Such a rhyme is hidden in a priceless and little-known work of medieval art that lies before the high altar of Westminster Abbey in London, England.

Hidden for decades beneath a carpet that used to be rolled back only for the feet of a new monarch, the Great Pavement of Westminster Abbey is a gloriously intricate mosaic floor that depicts a medieval view of the cosmos. It connects the life spans of plants, animals, and people with the life span of the universe and the day of judgment that would herald its end. The story told in the Great Pavement cannot now be read on its damaged surface, but it has been reconstructed by historical and archaeological detective work. An inscription in Latin, which ran around the four sides of the square frame that encloses the pavement, tells us that the mosaic was completed in "this Year of Our Lord 1272," in the reign of King Henry III. The pope contributed to the cost of its construction, and the Italian artisans who laid its dazzling pattern brought with them to dismal London bright stones salvaged from ancient Roman floors: glass tesserae in cobalt blue, turquoise, red and white, and purple porphyry, the livid color of congealed blood. This last is the rarest of the stones in the Great Pavement, found in only one mine in Egypt that closed 500 years before the birth of Jesus.

Within the square frame is a design of four circles that flow into one another, like giant loops formed from a single cord. Around the perimeters of the circles once ran the words:

If the reader wittingly reflects upon all that is laid down, he will discover here the measure of the primum mobile: the hedge stands for three years, add in turn dogs, and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, huge sea monsters, the world: each that follows triples the years of the one before.

Primum mobile refers to the outermost heavenly sphere in the medieval conception of the universe. Thus, according to the inscription, the witting reader will discover in the Great Pavement the measure of the universe or, in other words, how long it will endure. The medieval designers of the Great Pavement knew that different animals and plants have different life spans, and they perceived this variation as part of the grand design of the cosmos itself. The linked circles in the pavement embody the idea that life cycles are yoked together and are linked to the longevity of the universe. Everything was connected by application of the holy number three, culminating in judgment day. The formula that links the life spans in the pavement is three years for a hedge (before it is rejuvenated by cutting), tripled, which gives 32 (= 9 years) for the supposed life span of a dog; tripled again for the life span of a horse 33 (= 27 years), and so on up to 3 to the power 9, or 19,683 years, for the duration of the primum mobile.

Nineteen thousand years must have seemed like a very long time to a medieval cosmologist, but we now know that, looking backward into Earth history, it is scarcely any time at all. The Devonian limestone in the pavement, a rock consisting mainly of fossilized remains of marine creatures, is on the order of 350 million years old, but life has been present on Earth for ten times longer than that (3.5 billion years), and the planet is a billion years older still. The universe is nearly 14 billion years old by current estimates. Although today we are asking the same questions about time that our medieval forebears did, the answers offered by science stretch the imagination to its very limits.

What has science to say about life spans? Why do different species live for such different lengths of time&mash;a dog for maybe 10 years, but a human for 80? Medieval cosmologists believed that there was unity in the diversity of life spans because all belonged to a divinely ordered mathematical series. Does science have its own unified explanation for why longevity varies, or is it just a giant heap of facts, like a pile of mosaic pieces lacking order or design? And what of aging&mash;the dysfunctions that accumulate with age and that terminate even the longest life? Why do we age? Do animals and plants grow decrepit just as we do?

This book is my own mosaic in which I will piece together the answers that modern science offers to these questions. But we will begin in Westminster Abbey because, surprisingly for a medieval church, it has much more to tell us about death and immortality than just the message hidden in the Great Pavement.

Westminster Abbey is where England buries her immortals. Here death and posterity inhabit the same ground, serving to remind us that great art and scientific understanding transcend mortality. In this place, as much national mausoleum as church, lies Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), author of The Canterbury Tales. He is surrounded in Poets' Corner by memorials to William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Henry James, and seemingly every other name in the canon of English literature. The walls and floor of this Valhalla are so crowded with illustrious names that there is now an overflow into the stained-glass window above Chaucer's tomb. Oscar Wilde and Alexander Pope are among the names illuminated in the window that lights Chaucer's grave.

But this is an English church, and therefore ironies, rebellion, and even ribaldry run through its solemn fabric like veins in marble. In the seventeenth century, schoolboys from the adjacent Westminster College fought battles in the neglected aisles with the jawbone of King Richard II. Later, young scholars carved their names on tombs and even on the coronation chair, where the graffiti can still be seen. Samuel Pepys, the seventeenth-century diarist, records that the disinterred, mummified body of Queen Catherine of Valois, wife of King Henry V, 232 years dead, was available for display, and that one February day in 1669, "by particular favour ... I had the upper part of her body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen."

Signs of such sacrilege horrified later visitors. Washington Irving, visiting from New York at the beginning of the nineteenth century, wrote:

What, thought I, is this vast assemblage of sepulchres but a treasury of humiliation; a huge pile of reiterated homilies on the emptiness of renown and the certainty of oblivion! It is, indeed, the empire of death; his great shadowy palace where he sits in state mocking at the relics of human glory and spreading dust and forgetfulness on the monuments of princes. How idle a boast, after all, is the immortality of a name!

When one is surrounded in the abbey by a thousand forgotten names, it is tempting to agree. How can any human life span, ending as it must in aging and infirmity, measure up against the eternity of death? In the South Aisle, around the corner from more famous poets, is the memorial to William Congreve (1670–1729), a poet and playwright whose pallbearers included the then prime minister, but who is now scarcely remembered. Congreve's lover, Henrietta, Duchess of Marlborough, spent part of his legacy to her on a mechanical statue of Congreve, carved from ivory and driven by clockwork. The duchess talked daily at table to her wind-up lover, as though he were still alive, lending his memory, at least for her, a temporary reprieve from death.

The abbey is also the church where the kings and queens of England are habitually crowned. The pinnacle of pomp was reached here in 1902, at the coronation of Edward VII, when the British Empire was at its zenith. The king of England and of a quarter of the planet, the emperor of India, was warned by his doctors before the event that he could die during the ceremony if he didn't delay it to be treated for acute appendicitis. Reluctantly, the sovereign bowed to his own mortality, but was still weak when the coronation eventually took place. Rank and title are no protection from the infirmities of old age. The 80-year-old archbishop who performed the ceremony was in even worse condition than the king. Half-blind and with trembling hands, he had difficulty reading the service and had scarcely the strength to lift the crown onto the head of the new monarch. The king and three bishops had to help him to his feet after he knelt before the throne. The archbishop died within months. King Edward VII died only eight years later at the age of 68.

How is King Edward VII remembered today? The coins issued during his reign, surely durable and numerous enough to perpetuate Edward's name for centuries, are long out of circulation. British schoolchildren no longer memorize the names and dates of the monarchs that their great-grandparents learned by rote. In 1902, however, a vegetable grower honored King Edward by naming a new variety of potato after him. So, ironically, in England now, King Edward is a spud. Potatoes live longer than kings. Each potato tuber is genetically identical to the plant that made it, and since each crop is grown from tubers saved from a previous one, the original King Edward potato is still alive, multiplying with every season. The Idaho potato is an even older variety, used to make the fries served in McDonald's restaurants. These potatoes will outlive us all, especially if we eat too many of them. We will discover later why plants break all the records for extreme longevity and how diet influences life span in animals, including ourselves.

Notwithstanding the poignant examples of the fickleness of fame, Washington Irving was wrong. Some names, including his own, are remembered. Will Shakespeare ever be forgotten? Who can fail to recognize the handle of George Frideric on the composer's tomb in Poets' Corner while his sublime music still roars? Creators of immortal works live on, even if Woody Allen did once quip, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying." A remark that would probably not have amused Sir Isaac Newton, who was better known for gravity than levity. It is said that he laughed only once in his entire life, when someone asked him what use he saw in Euclid's Elements. Newton's marble memorial in the abbey is so elaborate it looks like a shrine, as well it might for this luminary of science. Alexander Pope famously wrote in his eulogy of Newton, "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, 'Let Newton be!' and all was light."

A few paces from Newton's shrine is the stark burial place of Charles Darwin, covered by a simple floor slab of white marble inscribed only with his name and dates. By the time of Darwin's death, the Anglican Church was largely reconciled to the theory of evolution, and it had been added to the list of nature's laws ordained by God. As for Darwin himself, although he had trained for the clergy as a young man, he died an agnostic. Darwin's faith foundered on two questions that still trouble religion today. Why does God permit evil? And where is the material evidence of God's existence? Charles Darwin was a man of great sensibility and kindness, devoted to his family, fiercely opposed to slavery, and considerate of others. When his beloved daughter Annie died of tuberculosis at the age of 10,9 he could not imagine how God, if he existed, could tolerate the suffering of an innocent child. Charles's wife, Emma, found consolation for Annie's death in religion, but Darwin found only doubt. Today the scientific puzzle is why evolution permits aging and death. Why me, oh Lord, but not the ageless Idaho potato?

Side by side with Darwin's tomb in Westminster Abbey, so close that the tombstones touch, is the grave of Sir John Herschel, astronomer and mathematician. Long before Darwin published his book The Origin of Species, Herschel had pondered what he called the "mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others" and speculated that "the origination of fresh species, could it ever become under our cognizance, would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process." When he came to write The Origin of Species, Darwin referred to Herschel's comment on the "mystery of mysteries" in the introductory chapter. The title Darwin chose for his book may also have been inspired by Herschel's phrase "the origination of fresh species." Darwin's great achievement was to discover how new species can arise naturally, without miraculous creation. He discovered how evolution happens.

Darwin called the mechanism that drives evolution natural se lection. Let individuals vary, he said, and those that are better equipped for survival in the struggle for existence that characterizes everyday life will leave more off spring than their lesser companions. Now imagine that the variation on which this winnowing of nature operates is inherited and is passed from parents to off spring. Then, those characteristics that lead to greater reproductive success will be naturally selected and will increase in each generation. Over many generations, natural selection will produce change, and given sufficient time, as Darwin wrote in the closing lines of The Origin of Species, "endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Westminster Abbey is a testament to the struggle for existence, for in this building we see how great a force is mortality. You cannot enter the abbey, first constructed more than a thousand years ago, without being reminded of the brevity of human life compared with the immensity of time. Until recently, disease was a great harvester of young life and talent, so much so that if those commemorated in Poets' Corner were to be resurrected in that spot, a significant part of it would become a tuberculosis ward. John Keats (d. 1821) died at age 26 of the disease. It also killed at least two of the three Brontë sisters, their wayward brother Branwell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning (d. 1861), and D. H. Lawrence (d. 1930). Alexander Pope (d. 1744) suffered stunted growth and lifelong illness associated with TB. Other literary suff erers included Robert Burns (d. 1796), Henry David Thoreau (d. 1862), and Washington Irving (d. 1859). The bacillus that causes TB has left its evolutionary mark on the human genome. Natural selection has increased the frequency of resistance genes in human populations that have been most exposed to the disease. In fact, the human genome is peppered with genes that have a function in protecting us from disease, all of them the product of natural selection driven by the epidemics of the past.

Death in childbirth was once also very common and was no respecter of rank. King Henry VIII's mother and two of his six wives died this way. Scarlet fever, a bacterial disease, carried off children of the privileged as well as those from more humble families. In Louisa May Alcott's famous novel Little Women, set at the time of the American Civil War, 13-year-old Beth March catches scarlet fever while helping the poor and eventually dies of the disease. Mortality was so ever-present in her world that even Beth's six dolls were all invalids. Vaccination, antibiotics, and good sanitation and health care have freed inhabitants of the developed world from the everyday fear of maternal and child death, but tuberculosis is still the biggest cause of preventable deaths in the developing world.

Science and public health have won important battles against infection, but not the war. Bacteria have very short generation times, which gives them the ability to multiply and to evolve at enormous rates. For example, the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which usually lives harmlessly in human stomachs but can cause stomach ulcers and even cancer, is usually acquired during childhood and, if not treated, evolves genetically distinct strains within the human body during a lifetime of infection. Half the human population carry this bacterium, and if you and I are both infected, mine will certainly be distinct from yours. The ability of short-lived pathogens to evolve rapidly has led to the appearance of genes for antibiotic resistance in H. pylori, in the tuberculosis bacterium, and in many others. These genes spread because they enable the bacteria that possess them to survive our attempts to poison them, but worse still, they can be transferred between unrelated bacteria, so antibiotic resistance can spread very rapidly and form combinations that elicit those words that you never want to hear your doctor utter: multiple drug resistance.

Excerpted from The Long and the Short of It by Jonathan Silvertown. Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Silvertown. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jonathan Silvertown is professor of ecology at the Open University, Milton Keynes, and the author or editor of a number of books, including, most recently, An Orchard Invisible. He lives in Milton Keynes.

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