What makes us alive? Moreover, what makes us dead?

When it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life.

There’s a claustrophobic moment in the new film of Stephen Hawking’s life when he describes his wife being given the option to let him die. It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript. Hawking had been hospitalised with pneumonia. He was placed on a life-support machine and put into a drug-induced coma. The doctors asked Jane Hawking if she wanted them to turn off the machine.
 
We can all be glad she said no, otherwise the planet would have been much the poorer for the past 28 years. Nonetheless, the shadow of death hangs over the whole film. One day – and it may not be many years away – Hawking will be no more. His declaration in September that assisted suicide should be possible without fear of prosecution suggests he might be squaring up to the idea.
 
Death seems to be the one thing that sets human beings apart: we are aware, unlike most (if not all) other animals, of our impending demise. Worse – as Jane Hawking knows too well – in this technological age, we have to make fine decisions about death. And here the advance of science seems to offer more hindrance than help.
 
Death is not what it was. Until half a century ago if you couldn’t breathe, you would soon be officially dead. Then someone invented the ventilator. Is a body that needs a machine to operate its lungs still alive? For sure, we now say.
 
It’s no longer the case that the heart has any jurisdiction over whether you’re dead. Remember the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba? His heart stopped for 78 minutes but then defibrillation got it started again. It’s a testimony to our scientific resourcefulness that we have learned how to choreograph the pulses of electrical current that will kick-start a long-immobile heart. Nonetheless, this, too, has complicated the notion of being “alive”.
 
Even what has been termed “brain death” is not enough. A lack of electrical activity inside your skull is not a sign that your brain cells are all dead. It takes up to eight hours to start dying and you can lose a lot of them before significant damage ensues. What’s more, damage to some cells makes permanent loss of consciousness inevitable. But damage to some others isn’t much of a problem.
 
Perhaps the most extreme technological management of death is among those who have paid to have their bodies frozen. Their hope is that future technologies will be able to defrost them and repair the damage that freezing cells full of water inevitably causes. This is not the last refuge of the frightened fool: plenty of our finest minds, including the MIT professor of artificial intelligence Marvin Minsky, have signed up to be cryo-preserved.
 
So, when it comes to death, science is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. Deepening our understanding of the body’s processes and learning how to keep them going longer has complicated and obfuscated the end of life. That’s why a few researchers have suggested that doctors are no longer qualified to make life-and-death decisions. Robert Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University, goes further: he thinks you should be allowed to come up with your own definition of death and inscribe it in a living will for others to respect.
 
It would certainly be nice to have a say – especially when you can see it coming. Long live Stephen Hawking. As long as he wants, that is.
Science has complicated death. Image: Getty

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Chinese loan sharks are using nudes as collateral. Is this the grim future of revenge porn?

The economics of shame. 

When female students in Guangdong, a southern province in China, applied for a small loan, they were met with a very specific demand. Send naked photos of yourself holding your ID cards, they were told – or you won’t get the money. If you don’t pay up, we’ll make the photos public.

This is according to Nandu Daily, the area’s local newspaper, but has also been reported by the Associated Press and the Financial Times. The FT places the trend in the context of the Chinese economy, where peer to peer lending sites like Jiedaibao, the platform where the students allegedly contacted the lenders, are common. Thanks to the country’s slowing economy, the paper argues, lenders are increasingly intent on making sure they’ll be repaid.

As a result, there have also been reports of property destruction and even beatings by loan sharks. Part of the problem is that these are unregulated lenders who operate through an online platform. In this case, Jiedaibao says the agreement about photos was made via different communication channels, and told the FT: “This is an illegal offline trade between victims and lenders who did it by making use of the platform.” 

This new use of naked photos in this case, though, plays to the ways that shame is now used as a weapon, especially online – and the fact that it can essentially be monetised.

Revenge porn is a huge and growing problem. As Jon Ronson noted in his book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the internet offers a unique space in which shamings (over a naked photo, or an unwise comment) can be transmitted all over the world almost instantly. For some, this threat is simply too much to cope with, as it was for the growing number teenagers who have committed suicide after being blackmailed with naked photos

It’s telling, too, that the students targeted with these demands were, reportedly at least, women. Most victims of revenge porn are also women. The shame brought down on women who appear in these photos is not so much about their nakedness, but the implication that they've behaved in a sexual way. In China, virginity is still highly valued in marriage, and your family and friends would likely take the spread of naked photos of you extremely seriously. In Behind the Red Door, Sex in China , Richard Burger notes:

Every year, thousands of Chinese women pay for an operation to restore their hymens shortly before their wedding so that husbands can see blood on the sheets on their honeymoon night.

The strange story of these students and their loans highlights two important points. First, as anti-loan shark campaigners have argued for decades, “free choice” in signing up to extortionate fees or demands when taking out a loan is a misnomer when you’re constrained by economic need and desperation.

But second, we can’t allow the shame around female sexuality to become a commodity. We need to both protect women's rights and persecute those who share images without consent, but also fight the stigma that makes these shamings possible in the first place. It's not acceptable that the suggestion of sexual activity can still be used to ruin women's lives.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.