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 It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript.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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

0800 7318496