Science to Share


Immortality, what does that even mean?

There are only 1440 minutes in a day. To give you an idea of how little time 1440 minutes is, that is not even enough to watch all of the star wars movies during a marathon. Our time is precious. We are all aware of that. But what if you didn’t need to worry about time? What if you would have all the time in the world for all eternity? Almost everyone has at some moment in their life wondered what it would be like to be immortal. Scientists have searched for ways to extend our lives far beyond our natural life span for a long time now and according to Aubrey the Grey, the first people who won’t die due to aging may be already among us.

Meanwhile, philosophers have discussed immortality for a long time. For example, Travis Timmerman, a professor in philosophy, thinks it would be incredibly boring to be immortal. But what do we exactly mean when we talk about “immortality”? There are many different ideas of what immortality is. Some of these ideas are even scientifically possible right now. But, it all depends on the way you look at it.

Biological immortality

Some people think that immortality simply means staying alive. Or speaking in biological terms, this means that the cells in your body need to stay alive and function for as long as possible.

Although we currently cannot keep all our cells alive in our bodies for extreme periods of time, we do know it is possible to keep cells alive in cultures for long periods of time. Many researchers for example make use of immortalized cell-lines. These are cells who keep dividing indefinitely, which is really handy for researchers who perform experiments.

A good example of such cell lines are HeLa cells, who came from a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Normally, cells stop dividing after a certain number of cell-divisions, because the telomeres of their DNA shorten a little bit every division. Hela cells counter this problem by expressing a protein named human Telomerase Reverse Transcriptase.

By artificially overexpressing this protein in other cells, researchers have created many cell lines that keep dividing indefinitely. The problem with this however is that it requires genetic modification, which is something which is easily done in cells, but not in living beings. Not only differs the efficiency of genetic modification for different cell types, we lack the tools to selectively target specific cell types in the body.

Even though Henrietta died in 1951, Hela cells are still being used in research a lot today. So you could say that in some sense, at least a part of her is immortal. But until we develop better tools, genetics won’t be able to make us actually immortal.

Henrietta Lacks, or just HeLa-cells?

Some people therefore decide to wait until we arrive at that point, by freezing their bodies, only to be thawed when we do have the technology to become immortal. A bit like what researchers do with strains of C. elegans (tiny worms) when they won’t use them for a while, or like what happened to Fry from the series Futurama, but then on purpose.

Mind over matter

Although it is possible to call Henrietta immortal in a very limited sense, most people have another idea about being immortal. Just like the saying “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” goes, the “you” that should be immortal is more than merely the cells that make up your body. In addition to these cells, your mind plays a big part in being immortal.

Some people go even further and say that it is only the mind that matters. The whole concept of “you”, to them, is only your mind. If you believe them you only need to make your mind immortal. To do this, they propose for example to upload your brain to computers.

If you don’t fancy your brain being uploaded to a database, or don’t like freezing temperatures , but still want to be immortal, then there might be another way. Although it isn’t the first thing that comes to mind, some people are immortal for the things they did or the things they came up with. Whether Shakespear is dead or isn’t dead, isn’t the question. The question is whether we remember him. Which we do! Many of his plays are still being performed in theatres. Through them we can consider Shakespear immortal, in some sense.

What about E=mc2? The equation which is so well-known that even children know the name of its inventor, Albert Einstein. By doing great things, both Shakespear and Einstein became immortal in the sense that everybody remembers them years after they died.

So what do you think? If you could be immortal, would it be through the hard work you did, or because you uploaded your mind to a server? Or would it suffice that your cells continue to live happily in a laboratory, where they are periodically used for some experiments by a researcher who tries to extend the human lifespan? Personally, I wouldn’t mind if my cells were being used for research, but I don’t think that I would upload my mind to some computer server. If you are still unsure about how you want to be immortal, you can always freeze yourself for a while, and make it a problem for future you. Or, you could read some more to make up your mind, or watch a video or two. 



Images adapted from:

National Institutes of Health (NIH) – National Institutes of Health (NIH), Public Domain,