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 It was 1985 and A Brief History of Time was a still-unpublished manuscript.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

Curtis Holland
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Living the Meme: What happened to the "Bacon is good for me" boy?

Eight years after becoming a meme, the boy dubbed "King Curtis" explains what life is like now.

It is hard to pinpoint the one quote that made Curtis Holland a viral sensation. When he appeared on Wife Swap eight years ago, Holland – aka King Curtis – battled ferociously with his replacement mum Joy, who wanted to rid his home of unhealthy snacks. “Chicken nuggets is like my family,” he said at one point; “I don’t wanna be skinny! I wanna be fat and happy,” he said at another; during one particularly memorable scene he wrote “I am not lisning to your rules” on a Post-It note.

“Bacon is good for me!” perhaps comes out top. The quote – like all the others – has become an internet meme, featured in screenshots and gifs, but has additionally been remixed into a song. The original clip has over ten million views on YouTube. Now aged 15, Holland is speaking to me from his home in Vanceboro, North Carolina. “Oh yes!” he says when I ask if he still likes bacon. “Every morning my mum gets up and we all cook bacon together.”

 

Before speaking to Holland, I had eaten (ten) chicken nuggets for my tea, but when I tell him this I'm not sure he believes me. “I know some people say this just to say it,” he says, before admitting he himself had eaten some that day. “This morning that's exactly what I had.”

Holland speaks in a straightforward matter-of-fact tone that is just as endearing now as it was when he was seven. He is incredibly respectful – calling me “ma’am” at least three times – and is patient when I struggle to decipher his thick Southern accent (“pennies” for example, becomes “pinnies”, “cars” is “curs”).

“We live in a small community, and a lot of people say that I'm the movie star,” says Holland, when I ask him to explain how life has changed since appearing on TV. When I ask about life after becoming a meme, Holland is less sure. “I mean I don't have a Twitter but a lot of people say that I'm up there just about every week,” he says (in reality, the clip of his appearance alone – never mind gifs, quotes or screenshots – is tweeted multiple times a day).

There is one meme moment, however, that Holland definitely didn’t miss. In 2015, Pretty Little Liars actress Lucy Hale posted a photo to Instagram asking for an update on his life. In response, Holland created a YouTube video asking for money to rebuild cars and confidently saying “Someday I’ll get my own bacon brand.” The video got over 400,000 views.

“I went viral for I think three or four days and I was on the most views on YouTube,” explains Holland. “That was pretty cool for me, to see when I look on YouTube there my face is.” How did it make him feel, I ask? “It makes you feel good inside. One day I come home from school and I was mad, and I can tell you it just made me feel really good inside to see that [the video] was pretty much one of the top in basically the world.”

Despite enjoying the attention, Holland has no aspirations to be a TV or internet star again. He is part of an organisation called the Future Farmers of America (FFA), and plans to go to his local community college before becoming a welder. “There’s a few know-it-alls in the community,” he says, “They just say it’s crazy how you went and did all that and now you’re not going on in the movie field. That’s not something I’m really interested in.”

Yet although Holland says it’s “time to move on a little bit”, he also admits he would be open to any offers. “A lot of people say well why don’t you just get up with a bacon company and do commercials or something… I mean I wouldn’t mind doing that if they came and asked me.” After Wife Swap, a company did come and film a pilot for Holland’s own show, but it never amounted to anything. “I mean you'd be lucky to get on TV once in your whole life and I feel like I really enjoyed it when I was up there,” he says when I ask if this was disappointing.

All of this means that Holland hasn’t made much money from his viral fame. Unlike other memes I’ve spoken to, he hasn’t earned hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I believe I got 150 bucks,” he says of his “Update” YouTube video, “All the other stuff like the ‘Bacon is good for me’ songs, they’ve [the creators] made $75,000 and that’s a lot of money putting away."

“I mean it don’t annoy me because it ain’t my fault; it’s nobody’s fault in the situation. They found a way around the system,” he says when I ask if he’s annoyed at others’ making money at his expense.

Nowadays, Holland is still recognised when he is out and about, and says he has signed over one thousand autographs in his life (once he was wary of a neighbourhood policeman who was asking him to sign a parking ticket, before he realised he simply wanted an autograph). “I don’t get sick of it, but of course you’ve got a few people that want to be rude about what you’re doing.

“I really don’t care, I’m a really upbeat kind of person. If there's somebody in a computer screen telling me something that means nothing, you know?”

For Holland, then, the good outweighs the bad. Apart from being asked after by Lucy Hale, his favourite thing about going viral is that he gets to make people laugh. “If I can go up to somebody and make their day and make them smile, I feel like I’ve done a great thing,” he says.

I end the interview with Holland like I end all of my interviews with memes: by asking him if there’s anything he would like to say – a message he’d like to get out there, or a misconception he’d like to clear up – now that he has the chance.

“Oh nothing I've got to say,” he begins, “except bacon is still good for me.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.