Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Basic immortality

Y'know, I've always been told that everything and everyone dies in the end. It's part of being alive, the philosophers have assured me cheerfully. It's what gives our existence shape and meaning. It returns us to our rightful state, as part of the world.

And then someone told me about this little bugger.

This tiny jellyfish, instead of dying after spawning like any self-respecting cnidarian, instead reverts to a juvenile, colonial-polyp state and gets to do it all over again. There is, allegedly, no limit to the number of times it can repeat this cycle. According to the Daily Telegraph, these immortal monsters are threatening to take over the entire ocean.

They're only 5mm long, so that doesn't sound all that scary. Still - if science fiction has taught us anything, and personally I think it's taught us practically everything, it's surely taught us how powerful immortality can be. Imagine if one of these things manages to open a bank account.

(A few years ago that would have sounded far-fetched, but given banks' recent performance, I'd have to say it'd be rash to rule out the possibility...)

When we grow old, all we can really do about it is spend lots of money - whether on Porsches or hair transplants or plastic surgery. None of which will really restore us to a polyp state. (Alternatively, we could go on pilgrimage to the Himalayan plateau, to live on yak butter tea and pure enlightenment. But historically, very few people have thought that was a price worth paying, and anyway I understand even Nepal isn't what it used to be in this regard.)

But little ol' Turritopsis nutricula - when it notices a grey tentacle here or there, all it has to do is find a partner and rut its way back to youth. How useful is that?

On second thoughts, though - from my point of view, what it would mean is that whenever my acne cleared up enough to let me get some action, I'd immediately be returned to pepperoni-faced ridicule. I remember my teenage years, and on the whole I'm glad they're behind me.


Ruby Apolline said...

Fascinating, both for the insight into the Luminous Stag and a wicked cool jellyfish.

I think I agree with you; this sort of thing would probably only work with a being that, as far as we know, has no consciousness. Describing it in human terms, as you did later in the piece, makes it sound like torture.

Which some science fiction and fantasy novels and movies seem to imply immortality would be, yes? I concur.

vet said...

There are some conceptions of immortality that sound pretty cool. The Highlander model, for instance, doesn't seem too bad. True, you have to watch people around you aging and dying, but that looks to me like a small price for avoiding the alternative.

But one that involves batting you to and fro between age and youth - like some interpretations of Dracula - that's not something I'd want. It strikes me that both age and youth have their drawbacks, and you don't want to have to adjust to a whole new set just as you're getting used to them...

Anonymous said...

Highlander example?!? not only are people aging and dying around you, there's mad immortal people trying to kill you too.

Ruby Apolline said...

I was thinking of that character in Neuromancer, was it? Or maybe Snow Crash--a hacker who managed to upload his consciousness to the Net and after a time went insane. There's an X-Files episode along this line, although two lovers upload themselves to be together forever. It makes me wonder whether a consciousness evolved in a mortal body (if, indeed, it did evolve) is somehow tied to mortality; that eternal existence would make it crazy.

Yeah, I've thought a lot about it...

vet said...

I've long been convinced that our intelligence is closely tied to our physical bodies - it's not possible to replicate a human mind unless you also replicate a human body, complete with discomfort, hunger, aging, cold and fear, to put it in. (Of course that "body" may be virtual - only the consciousness really has to believe in it.)

But that doesn't mean you couldn't create other kinds of intelligence with other conditions. It's just that they wouldn't think much like us.