Quite a bit of attention has been focussed on a man called Aubrey de Grey recently. He’s been the subject of various articles, a Channel 4 documentary and, most recently, a guest on the Jeremy Vine Show on Radio 2. The people who ‘phoned or texted the Jeremy Vine Show invariably referred to him as ‘this scientist’, dazzled by his Cambridge Ph.D. and his tendency to refer to himself as a ‘biogerontologist’.
If you listen to the way his theory is being reported, there is absolutely no reason why every one of us shouldn’t live to be a thousand or so years old. If it wasn’t for the effects of what Aubrey calls ‘seven deadly things’ that cause ageing (cell death - i.e. ageing - of course, being the foremost) we could all be looking forward to the next new millennium right now. Which would be nice. So all we have to do is get rid of the seven deadly things, right? Riiiiighht….
Dr. Aubrey de Grey was indeed employed by Cambridge University’s genetics department and he is obviously no thickie - but he is not a geneticist or biologist. Nor was he employed as one. His job was to take care of the department’s computer systems. Aubrey de Grey is a computer scientist.
To be fair, he doesn’t actually conceal this fact. While his academic qualifications are neatly lined up in his online “Biographical Sketch” (”B.A., M.A. and Ph.D., University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK”) without stating what field they are in, he does go on to state - rather engagingly, I thought - “As a scientist with a training in an engineering discipline (computer science), I am unusually well placed to bridge this gap” - that is, the gap between the “goal-directed frame of mind” and the “curiosity driven ethos”.
You have to do a bit of trawling to find it, though, and it is definitely downplayed in comparison to all his waffling about his current obsession. Aubrey de Grey may have more right to the title of “Dr” than Gillian McKeith, but he seems just as guilty of allowing the public to misinterpret his area of expertise.
I don’t actually have a problem with his ideas - ideas are good. Even barmy ones can take us in unexpected and sometimes beneficial directions. Generally I’ve got no problem with people throwing money at research, either - it’s probably as useful as buying lottery tickets. It’s just that in this case I suspect it may be about as useful as making a donation to the Moonies.
So join in the debate, discuss the ideas, encourage research. But please, find out what you’re throwing your money at before you let it go. That way it might actually do some good.