Category Archives: Rabbit in the Moon

Do you want to live forever?

One of the primary themes in our novel, “Rabbit in the Moon” is finding the secret of longevity. We started with the premise: what if someone in 1989 had succeeded in extending man’s lifespan well beyond that normal limits? Then we asked: who would want such a discovery and what might they do to get their hands on it? 

At the time we wrote the book, we assumed most people would want to live to be at least 150 – as long as could live a quality life. But interestingly, as we’ve gone around the country speaking to book clubs and library groups, not everyone agrees. Many of the reasons they give us are those that make our fictional character Dr. Ni-Fu Cheng ultimately decide not to give mankind his secret.

In this essay by David Ewing Duncan a contributor to Science Times, Duncan says that he has polled audiences as we have and come up with many of the same responses. Read it here and let us know your thoughts: 

How Long Do You Want to Live?

By DAVID EWING DUNCAN

SINCE 1900, the life expectancy of Americans has jumped to just shy of 80 from 47 years. This surge comes mostly from improved hygiene and nutrition, but also from new discoveries and interventions: everything from antibiotics and heart bypass surgery to cancer drugs that target and neutralize the impact of specific genetic mutations.

Now scientists studying the intricacies of DNA and other molecular bio-dynamics may be poised to offer even more dramatic boosts to longevity. This comes not from setting out explicitly to conquer aging, which remains controversial in mainstream science, but from researchers developing new drugs and therapies for such maladies of growing old as heart disease and diabetes.

“Aging is the major risk factor for most diseases,” says Felipe Sierra, director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging. “The National Institutes of Health fund research into understanding the diseases of aging, not life extension, though this could be a side effect.”

How many years might be added to a life? A few longevity enthusiasts suggest a possible increase of decades. Most others believe in more modest gains. And when will they come? Are we a decade away? Twenty years? Fifty years?

Even without a new high-tech “fix” for aging, the United Nations estimates that life expectancy over the next century will approach 100 years for women in the developed world and over 90 years for women in the developing world. (Men lag behind by three or four years.)

Whatever actually happens, this seems like a good time to ask a very basic question: How long do you want to live?

Over the past three years I have posed this query to nearly 30,000 people at the start of talks and lectures on future trends in bioscience, taking an informal poll as a show of hands. To make it easier to tabulate responses I provided four possible answers: 80 years, currently the average life span in the West; 120 years, close to the maximum anyone has lived; 150 years, which would require a biotech breakthrough; and forever, which rejects the idea that life span has to have any limit at all.

I made it clear that participants should not assume that science will come up with dramatic new anti-aging technologies, though people were free to imagine that breakthroughs might occur — or not.

The results: some 60 percent opted for a life span of 80 years. Another 30 percent chose 120 years, and almost 10 percent chose 150 years. Less than 1 percent embraced the idea that people might avoid death altogether.

These percentages have held up as I’ve spoken to people from many walks of life in libraries and bookstores; teenagers in high schools; physicians in medical centers; and investors and entrepreneurs at business conferences. I’ve popped the question at meetings of futurists and techno-optimists and gotten perhaps a doubling of people who want to live to 150 — less than I would have thought for these groups.

Rarely, however, does anyone want to live forever, although abolishing disease and death from biological causes is a fervent hope for a small scattering of would-be immortals.

In my talks, I go on to describe some highlights of cutting-edge biomedical research that might influence human life span.

For instance, right now drug companies are running clinical trials on new compounds that may have the “side effect” of extending life span. These include a drug at Sirtris, part of GlaxoSmithKline, that is being developed to treat inflammation and other diseases of aging. Called SRT-2104, this compound works on an enzyme called SIRT1 that, when activated, seems to slow aging in mice and other animals. It may do the same thing in humans, though this remains to be proven.

“Many serious attempts are being made to come up with a pill for aging,” said Dr. Sierra, though he suspects that there will not be a single anti-aging pill, if these compounds end up working at all. “It will be a combination of things.”

For over a decade, scientists also have experimented with using stem cells — master cells that can grow into different specialized cells — to replace and repair tissue in the heart, liver and other organs in animals. Some researchers have succeeded in also using them in people. The researchers include the urologist Anthony Atala of Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, who has grown human bladders and urethras from stem cells that have been successfully transplanted into patients.

But another stem cell pioneer, James Thomson of the University of Wisconsin, believes that stem cell solutions will be a long time coming for more complex organs. “We’re a long way from transplanting cells into a human brain or nervous system,” he said.

ANOTHER intervention that might thwart the impact of aging is bionics: the augmentation or replacement of biological functions with machines. For years cardiac pacemakers have saved and extended the lives of millions of people. More recent devices and machine-tooled solutions have restored hearing to thousands who are deaf and replaced damaged knees and hips. Physicians use brain implants to help control tremors brought on by Parkinson’s disease. Researchers also are working on a wide range of other machine fixes, from exoskeletons that protect joints to experimental devices that tap into the brain activity of paralyzed patients, allowing them to operate computers using thought.

Curiously, after learning about these possibilities, few people wanted to change their votes. Even if I asked them to imagine that a pill had been invented to slow aging down by one-half, allowing a person who is, say, 60 years old to have the body of a 30-year-old, only about 10 percent of audiences switched to favoring a life span of 150 years.

Overwhelmingly the reason given was that people didn’t want to be old and infirm any longer than they had to be, even if a pill allowed them to delay this inevitability.

Others were concerned about a range of issues both personal and societal that might result from extending the life spans of millions of people in a short time. These included everything from boredom and the cost of paying for a longer life to the impact of so many extra people on planetary resources and on the environment. Some worried that millions of healthy centenarians still working and calling the shots in society would leave our grandchildren and great-grandchildren without the jobs and opportunities that have traditionally come about with the passing of generations.

Long-lifers countered that extending healthy lives would delay suffering, possibly for a very long time. This would allow people to accomplish more in life and to try new things. It would also mean that geniuses like Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein might still be alive. Einstein, were he alive today, would be 133 years old.

That’s assuming that he would want to live that long. As he lay dying of an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 1955, he refused surgery, saying: “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially. I have done my share, it is time to go. I will do it elegantly.”

David Ewing Duncan is a contributor to Science Times. This essay is adapted from his most recent e-book, “When I’m 164: The New Science of Radical Life Extension and What Happens If It Succeeds.”

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First emperor Qin may have used “just-in-time” production methods for his weapons

We set much of the plot for our medical mystery/thriller “Rabbit in the Moon” in Xi’an in Shaanxi province. If you’ve ever traveled there, you’ve certainly seen the tomb of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor who unified China. In 210 BC, Qin was buried surrounded by terra cotta likenesses of over 8,000 of his personal soldiers as well as 150 calvary horses and 130 chariots with 520 horses. Each clay soldier carried swords, axes, spears, lances and crossbows made of the bronze.

Xian

The tomb was first discovered in March, 1974 by local farmers when they were digging a water well. Still not completely excavated, the site draws crowds of tourists who marvel at the individually sculptured faces of the soldiers.

Scientists have been particularly interested in how the bronze weapons were made.  A recent study of 40,000 bronze arrowheads published in the Journal of Archaeological Methods and Theory argues that these weapons were manufactured within various multi-skilled units that would have included a master artisan and a quality control supervisor rather than in a Ford motor car assembly line model. The authors state that “this system favored more adaptable and efficient logistical organization that facilitated dynamic cross-craft interaction while maintaining remarkable degrees of standardization.”

If true, this ancient “just-in-time” approach was a precursor for the same method favored by companies like Toyota today.

The distance between each carved soldier is quite small, so the assumption is that they were placed in the pit fully outfitted with their weapons. According to the researchers, this suggests that the weapon manufacturers had to coordinate their work with the statue carvers in order to keep the production flow efficient. Given that Qin was known to deal harshly with those who didn’t please him, there must have been incredible pressure on the 700,000 indentured slaves, prisoners of war, skilled artisans and others said to have worked on his mausoleum complex. Skeletons in iron shackles unearthed at the site suggest they didn’t always make the grade.

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Still no “secret of longevity”

Since one of the premises in our novel “Rabbit in the Moon” is that a Chinese scientist in 1989 has actually found the secret of longevity, we are always interested in the results of current scientific research on the subject.

Starting in the 1980’s, researchers like the late Dr. Roy Walford  at UCLA, have hypothesized that eating a severely calorie restricted calories can prolong life. This was based on original work with rats done in the 1930’s. The idea became so popular, that many proponents of this theory began trying to extend their own lives by reducing their calorie intake to less than 1000 calories per day.

However, just last week, the results of a 25 year long National Institute on Aging sponsored project in which rhesus monkeys were fed diets restricting their calories by 30 percent as compared to a control group seems to have refuted this (at least in monkeys). The study, which was published online in the journal Nature showed that the skinny monkeys did not live any longer than those kept at more normal weights. Interestingly, monkeys put on the diet when they were older showed some improvement in lab tests such as cholesterol and blood sugar (males only) and triglycerides (both genders) However, the causes of death — cancer, heart disease — were the same in both the underfed and the normally fed monkeys.

Rafael de Cabo, lead author of the diet study, said he was surprised and disappointed because he had expected an outcome similar to that of a 2009 study from the University of Wisconsin which concluded that caloric restriction did extend monkeys’ life spans.

Unfortunately, in that Wisconsin project, the authors disregarded about half of the deaths among the monkeys studied, claiming they were not related to aging. If they had included all of the deaths, they would have had to conclude that there was no extension of life span.

The good news is that science prevails here – someone has a hypothesis; they set up an experiment to prove it; they publish the results regardless of the outcome (i.e. present the facts); and then other scientists try to replicate the study in order to be sure that the results are accurate.

Still, this does not mean that cutting calories to a reasonable level in order to improve health is not a good idea.

The researchers of this study plan to continue it until the youngest monkeys are 22 years old. While they recognize that the data seems to rule out any notion that a low-calorie diet will increase average life spans, they hope to find that the diet increases the animals’ maximum life span by keeping them healthier.

So stay tuned.

And in the meantime, read “Rabbit in the Moon” to learn Dr. NiFu Cheng’s secret of longevity!

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Despite new economic freedom, still no mention of Tiananmen

As we wrote in an earlier post,  this month marked the 23rd anniversary of what the Chinese government refers to only as “the June 4th incident”. Yet that “event” became a pivotal moment for the nation as leaders made a deal with its citizens: you can get rich (in fact, Deng declared “to get rich is glorious”), but don’t try to bring down One Party Rule.

Our recent trip to SE Asia included stops in south China and Hong Kong. With each visit since 1989 we’ve seen extraordinary changes. China has made impressive economic gains: second largest world economy, over 300 million people living middle and upper middle class lives, and almost 100 billionaires. The big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou on the mainland are so modern, it’s hard to find much of old China  there.

Image

(photo of Guangzhou)

And Hong Kong- well that’s like New York on steroids.

Image

(photo of Hong Kong)

What continues, however, is the fear by the government of any kind of rebellion resembling the failed 1989 student movement, or worse, the successes of the recent Arab Spring. Internet censors are constantly checking for key words like “Tiananmen” or “Charter ’08”, the online proclamation that China should embrace democracy which sent Liu Xiabo, winner of the 2110 Nobel Peace Prize to jail for 11 years.

Even Apple has had to tailor its iPhone sold in China to satisfy the government.  A recent online Daily Feed article stated that “development testers have found that when you ask about Siri about Tiananmen Square, or ‘the events of June 4, 1989,’ they receive confused or nonsensical responses. Attempts to even ask for directions to Tiananmen Square return similarly garbled results. This last detail is particularly odd because, apart from its role as site of pro-democracy protests, Tiananmen Square is a major landmark in Beijing. From a geographic standpoint, not being able to locate it is roughly akin to an American iPhone saying it doesn’t recognize the phrase ‘Central Park.'”

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23rd anniversary of Tiananmen

Hard to believe 23 years have gone by since the Tiananmen massacre of June 4, 1989. Despite the distance of time, any official discussion of the event the Chinese government still refers to as merely the “June 4th incident” is taboo. While Hong Kong remains surprisingly open in terms of freedom to assemble and protest about that night (there are yearly candlelight vigils on the anniversary of Tiananmen), there were no demonstrations reported across Mainland China where the events of June 4th are still considered “counter-revolutionary”.

Tank Man

“Tank Man”

When the Shanghai Composite Index opened today at 2,246.98, several bloggers within China interpreted this as the 23rd anniversary of the June 4, 1989 crackdown when read from right to left. Their blogs were immediately shut down by censors. The Chinese have a long tradition of being superstitious- especially about numbers. There has been some speculation as to whether the fall in the index represented the work of hackers, but many believe that to be highly unlikely.

In the meantime, a spokesman for the US State Department encouraged the Chinese government to  “release everyone still serving sentences for their participation in the 1989 demonstrations; to provide a full public accounting of those killed, detained or missing; and to end the continued harassment of demonstration participants and their families.”

Liu Weimin, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the statement.

Despite its acceptance of a more Western style capitalistic approach for its economy, the Chinese government is committed to one party rule at all costs.

Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 2010 and was involved in the 1989 demonstrations  is serving an 11 year sentence for his  internet proclamation “Charter ’08” urging China to end its one party rule and embrace democracy.

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Guide to pronouncing Chinese names

By popular request, we are adding a pronunciation guide for those who have said that would will help them pronounce some of the difficult Chinese names in our novel, “Rabbit in the Moon”.

The official system of romanization used in China today is known as Pinyin.  It is now almost universally adopted by the Western media. Although non-Chinese may initially encounter some difficulty in pronouncing romanized Chinese words,  many of the sounds actually correspond to the usual pronunciation of the letters in English. The exceptions:

c: is like the ts  in ‘its’

q: is like the ch  in ‘cheese’

x: has no English equivalent, and can be best described as a hissing consonant that lies somewhere between sh  and s. The sound was rendered as hs under an earlier transcription system.

z: is like ds  in ‘fads’

zh: is unaspirated and sounds like the j   in ‘jug’

a: sounds like ‘ah’

e: is pronounced as in ‘her’

i: is pronounced as in ‘ski’ (written as yi  when not preceded by an initial consonant).

However, in ci, chirishizi , and zhi,  the sound represented by the  final  i  is quite different and is similar to the ir  in ‘sir’, but without much stressing of the r  syllable.

o: sounds like the aw  in ‘law’

u: sounds like the oo  in ‘ooze’

e: is pronounced as in ‘get’

u: is pronounced as the German (written as yu  when preceded by an initial consonant)

When two or more finals are combined, such as hao, jiao, and liu, each letter retains its sound value as indicated in the list above, but note the following:

ai: is like the ie  in ‘tie’

ei: is like the ay  in ‘bay’

ian: is like the ien  in ‘Vienna’

ie: is similar to ‘ear’

ou: is like the o  in ‘code’

uai: sounds like ‘why’

uan: is like the uan  in ‘iguana’

(except when preceded by j, q, x , and y; in these cases a u  following any of these four consonants is in fact u  and uan  is similar to uen)

ue: is like the ue  in ‘duet’

ui: sounds like ‘way’

Examples:

A few Chinese names are shown below with English phonetic beside them:

Beijing = Bay-jing

Guilin = Gway-lin

Xi’an = Shi-ahn

Qing Nan = Ching Nan

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Chinese music was our inspiration for “Rabbit in the Moon” thriller

We’ve been asked to think of who we’d like to see in the roles of the characters we’ve created in our novel, Rabbit in the Moon and in fact, we are working on that for a new website called My Book, The Movie. Frankly, with the exception of Lili, we didn’t focus as much on what film star should play what part.

Instead, we got our inspiration from Chinese music. As we were writing our book, we listened to Karen (Hua-Qi) Han’s gorgeous erhu (see picture above) playing

Karen happens to be a dear friend and some of the inspiration for our main character, Lili Quan, as well as the person to whom we dedicated our book. As Karen herself says, the 2000-year-old Chinese violin has a voice-like quality that evokes Eastern cultural traditions.

If a movie is made, we hope Karen will play (and perhaps compose) the music. She has been a featured musician in just about every Hollywood movie score that requires the erhu including The Joy Luck Club, The Last Emperor and Kung Fu Panda. Here’s a link to her playing the theme of that film:

It is also Karen playing on our book trailer.

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