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 It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript.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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An alien for Putin: are emojis changing the face of diplomacy?

Emojis could be the promised land of diplomatic history: they have the potential to speak across borders to a new, global citizenry.

Three sets of side-eyes, a tears-of-joy face, a sunglasses face, a Japanese ogre, a goblin, an alien face, a thumbs up, the piece sign, and an arm muscle clench. These were the emojis that Walid Joumblatt, the 67 year-old Lebanese politician and ex-warlord, tweeted to mark the instatement of The Arab League’s new secretary-general.

If Middle Eastern politics doesn't already have you hooked, Joumblatt’s Twitter account will draw you in with its surreal mix of paintings and politics. He's also an emoji mogul: aliens for Putin; hearts for Oscar, his dog. 

The unorthodox style has won him 240,000 followers and drawn the attention of Britain’s diplomat-célèbre, Tom Fletcher, who served as Britain's ambassador in Lebanon from 2011 to 2015. Fletcher has not yet used emojis professionally, he tells me down the line from a Humanitarian summit in Turkey, but he is intrigued by Jumblatt’s increasing and provocative use of the symbols. 

Fletcher is well versed in the syntax of statesmanship. As a former Downing Street foreign policy advisor to three consecutive Prime-Ministers, and author of a new review into the UK’s diplomatic operations, he has fought to throw off the old stereotypes that weigh down his vocation – from “smug” aristocrat to “perfidious Machiavel”.

To do this successfully, he argues in his book Naked Diplomacy, the next generation must become “digital interventionists”; masters of social media who “influence the countries we work in on a massive scale, not just through elites”. And yet the role of emojis – the native slang of the digital world - leaves his profession in a pickle.

In many ways, emojis are the promised land of diplomatic history: they have the potential to speak across borders to a new, global citizenry. They are the Esperanto of the digital age.

Eighty per cent of world leaders have a Twitter handle and many already fly the flag for emojis, quite literally. Over 200 national banners are currently supported by the Unicode Consortium - from Christmas Island to South Korea.

But emojis can also tend to the crass and immature. Their meanings are both overly limited and hazardously slippery. Just look at the concern caused when emojis turn up in court, or Scottish fury that the Saltire is missing from the official list.

Could such crude cartoons really add to the pursuit of world peace? “I think we’re a long way from an emoji being used in an official statement, though I may be wrong,” Fletcher says. Symbols can all too easily cause offence: “Some years ago there was a big EU summit where the UK tried to introduce a logo with symbols on from all the different countries, including a pizza for the Italians – who were livid that we’d reduced Italy to a pizza. So you have to be cautious.”

Few are expected to guard their choices of expression closer than diplomats. Their duty to promote exchange between nations must always be offset against avoiding insult - a balance that Australia’s Julie Bishop foreign affairs minister struggled to reach in a Buzzfeed interview using emojis alone. Her choice of a red-faced emoticon to describe Putin did not go down well with her country’s Senate: what exactly was she using it to infer, they demanded to know? 

How emojis receive official codification by the Unicode Consortium, the language's gatekeeper, is thus an increasingly loaded subject. Its Unicode Emoji Subcommittee regularly updates, revises and reviews requests to extend the existing canon of symbols. And participation is open to a wide range of interests: from those with voting rights - such as Google, the Government of Tamil Nadu, and Berkley University - to associate members like Netflix, and even individuals and students. Next month's new release will include both chopsticks and a criossant.

With countries as concerned with selling their brand as defending their borders, emoji generation is becoming a matter of national concern. Last year Finland became the first to announce a set of “country-themed emojis”, including a head banger and two people in a sauna.

“Aston Martins, Benedict Cumberbatch, or Prince Harry”, are Fletcher's off-the-cuff suggestions for emojis to promote Brand UK. These are fitting choices, but also ones that raise an intriguing question: is foreign service anxiety towards emojis not just professional, but cultural too?

Bond, Cumberbatch, and Balmoral are the symbolic reflections of Britain’s stiff upper lip. They echo an era when (largely male) authority was judged on an ability to keep emotions firmly under wraps. And while an Ethnos study into British citizenship found that such reserve is still admired by White English participants, it also concluded that Scottish, Welsh and ethnic minority interviewees living England “were more likely to see it as a negative trait”.

Truly “naked diplomacy” might therefore have to embrace more than just a new Foreign Office snapchat account. But something more vulnerable and risky too: emotional honesty, and perhaps even emoticons.

So far it seems to be women and smaller nations leading the way. Hillary Clinton was feted for an email enquiring whether she could “get smiley faces” on her new Blackberry. The Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is also a smiley fan, while Michelle Obama has proposed a whole new set of emojis to empower girls.

Emojis ever-expanding catalogue offers a chance to grow a new form of global literacy, and perhaps a new, more open form of diplomacy, too. Who knows, perhaps the Consortium’s 2016 decision to exclude a rifle but include a handshake could pave the way for better world relations in future. 

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.