Sunday, October 17, 2010

Eternal Life: Here to Stay

Concepts of immortality vary greatly in this world. There are even tremendous variations in what immortality is from individual to individual in many different cultures. The kind that interests most of Westerners today is personal immortality, which is the preservation of life. Even in some of the most ancient texts, immortality is an occurring theme. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the oldest texts in the world dating back to Mesopotamia, Gilgamesh attempts to go to heaven in order to attain eternal life. Another ancient tale is that of Alexander the Great traveling to Siwa Oasis in Egypt in order to achieve immortality in the afterlife after receiving a prophecy about having a short life. In terms of the physical being lasting forever, our society has a high interest in it. We enjoy movie, television shows, and books about it. Some of the most commonly known ways of preserving the self are the Philosopher’s Stone and The Fountain of Youth, both of which have been portrayed in many different ways. Another more recent is modern medicine, like stem cells, that give us the little glimmer of hope that one day something as mythical as immortality could in fact be a reality.

When looking back at alchemy and chemistry during the renaissance one clearly defined, but widely debated, source of life and immortality is the Philosopher’s Stone. Alchemy was often known for its use in transmutation of metals and the advancements that led to a closer study of chemistry, however, the Philosopher’s Stone combined every aspect of this study and included in itself the ability to conquer death and bring stability. The Philosopher’s Stone, while often told to bring about different results, was agreed that it had the ability to cause any type of life to be prolonged and supplied with the means to sustain itself. The most popular form of the stone comes from an understanding that the four Aristotle elements form the basis from which is needed to begin the process of creation. These four elements consist of earth, fire, water, and air. Through the process of finding a way to disintegrate and dissolve then reform and solidify it would be possible to obtain the raw elements which are found in everything within the universe. From these universal elements and using them in a specific combination known as the Qabalistic Tree of Life, an alchemist could obtain the basis for which all life is created. At the bottom of this tree the 3 element of fire, water, and air forms earth which is the exterior of the stone. The next step to procuring immortality was to use the stone in the philosophical and mythical explanation of how a phoenix uses itself to give life at the cost of its own. As described by Israel Regardie, “Even as the Phoenix tears open its own breast in order to feed its young with its own life-blood. The vitality of the Stone destroys its own basis in order to renew itself” (Regardie, 50). After describing how to obtain the stone and the way the stone is able to reproduce itself, the next logical step is to discuss how someone is to use the stone to gain its ‘power’ of life. Many believed that the stone secreted a type of oil, which when ingested provided the proper nutrients to sustain any type of life without the need for food or water. This, in combination with the stones ability to reproduce, allows for an unlimited supply of the oil and thus infinite life. Other uses for this oil consist of providing high fertility rates, stronger maturity of children, as well as the ability to transmute metals, such as lead into gold.

Another form of concept of immortality was the Fountain of Youth. The Fountain of Youth is a source of water that people in almost every culture believes is hidden somewhere in the world that provides either for people to change back or stay in their youthful state, or to live forever. The idea and story of the Fountain of Youth have been around since B.C. and, throughout history, was believed to have multiple uses. In Greek mythology some say bathing in the fountain, called Nauplain Springs, would allow regaining a person’s virginity. Also there is a Brahmanic legend that says the fountain renews power or vigor to a person not just youth. Another story of the fountain is in the Romance of Alexander which is actually based on Alexander the Great. It states the fountain has divine powers, healing powers, oracular powers, and rejuvenating powers.

Cultures have believed it for many reasons, first because it was always something that was talked about in the European culture. It was a story passed down from generation to generation. No one wanted to turn old so this hope that there was a fountain out there that could reverse aging always caught people’s attention. People wanted to live and they would do anything to live longer. People have always been searching for this fountain, and even some have claimed to have found it and that’s what really gives people hope, the fact that people keep possibly finding it. The story has been used throughout literature from before the renaissance and even today like modern stories such as Tuck Everlasting.

No matter how much research is done there are no real scientific facts that show the Fountain of Youth is actually real and has worked. It’s more like speculation so people can only really base their knowledge off of what other people have found or discovered about the fountain. One explorer named Ponce de Leon is the one we turn to for the most information. When looking into the Fountain of Youth the search that he conducted back in the 1500’s has been the one people have mentioned the most throughout history. The thing is, he never really wrote down what he was searching for when he was exploring. The fountain was said to have been found in the Florida by Ponce de Leon but we really only have so much information to find out the real facts. It’s also said that it wasn’t until after de Leon died that it was actually speculated that he was searching for the Fountain of Youth. The fountain has always been something that plays a role in history, but what it really comes down to though, is the fact that people need to believe in it to gain hope.

The search isn’t over though. Today people are still searching for the Fountain of Youth. A current magician David Copperfield claimed after purchasing an island that he had found the Fountain of Youth on the island and he wanted to charge people to drink it. Some people like him see it only as a money making business.

When looking at more modern techniques and theories of immortality, stem cells top the charts. Stem cells are essentially the building blocks of the human body. Unlike the ordinary cell, which can only create copies of its own kind, stem cells are pluripotent, which means that they can develop into any cell, any tissue and any organ in the human body. There are two main types of stem cells, Embryonic stem cells and Adult stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are derived from aborted fetuses or fertilized eggs that are left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF). When an embryo is between 3 – 5 days old, it has stem cells, which work to create the various organs and tissues that make up the fetus.

There are many fields in medicine where stem cell research can have great value. For example, in case of different diseases and injuries which caused a patient cells and tissues to be destroyed, stem cells may be able to generate brand new tissues in these cases, and even cure diseases for the ones that we don’t have a cure for yet. This can allow for a person’s life to be significantly extended due to the fact that they might have died from the said disease. Stem cells can also be used to better understand how genetics work in the early stages of growth. This can help scientists and researchers understand why some cells develop defects and cause medical problems such as birth defects and cancer. With the knowledge of genetic basis for cell development, researchers may find answers to these problems and therefore allowing any individual to prosper and raise the life expectancy to new levels. Lastly, stem cells may be used to test and create drugs. Since stem cells can be used to develop unlimited amounts of specialized tissue, such as heart and muscle tissue, we may test how drugs react on these specialized tissues before testing on animals or other subjects for effectiveness and side effects.

Without a doubt it is a human need and desire to prolong our ability to continue living. As an intelligent species we have the ability to explain relatively everything using some form of math and science, but immortality is the equation that eludes us. Through the years we have come up with many theories and possibilities to conquer death, but all thus far have been unattainable. This failure, however, has never stopped our human desire to achieve the perceived impossible. We will never stop finding a way to achieve immortality, but the next step may be determining if living forever is morally acceptable in the limited resource world we live in now.

Works Consulted

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Images in Exhibit Piece courtesy of: Google, Bing, and Devianart.

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