We are driven by the fear of death: A Wknd interview with Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan - Hindustan Times
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We are driven by the fear of death: A Wknd interview with Nobel laureate Venki Ramakrishnan

ByGraeme Green
Apr 12, 2024 04:45 PM IST

The biologist’s new book, Why We Die, is on the science of ageing and the quest for immortality. Life would lose meaning without death, he tells Graeme Green.

Venki Ramakrishnan celebrated his 72nd birthday last week but, despite his own suggestion that “many people do their best work when they’re young,” the Nobel laureate is starting work on new projects and exploring ways to keep himself excited in science and in life.

 (Image: Kate Joyce / Santa Fe Institute) PREMIUM
(Image: Kate Joyce / Santa Fe Institute)

The structural biologist recently set up the cutting-edge medical company RNAvate, which uses mRNA (a molecule containing instructions that direct cells to make proteins) to correct diseases and produce better vaccines.

In March, he published his second popular-science book, Why We Die: The New Science of Ageing and the Quest for Immortality (Hachette India / Hodder & Stoughton), which explores the latest in our scientific understanding of why humans age and die, and explores humanity’s obsession with eternal life.

His first book, Gene Machine (2018), focused on ribosomes, which he describes as “the molecular machine that makes DNA come alive”. “I like to try new things, such as writing popular books, and get out of my comfort zone,” Ramakrishnan says. “My work on how cells make proteins is very central to many of the processes of ageing. But it was a challenge and a new endeavour to digest the vast literature on ageing and write about it for a general audience.”

Born in Tamil Nadu in 1952, to two science professors, he spent his youth in Gujarat before moving, aged 19, to the US, where he studied physics and biology, conducted postdoctoral research at Yale University from 1978 to 1982, and worked in the laboratory of American molecular biophysicist and biochemist Peter Moore, which is where he began his research on ribosomes.

Since 1999, he has lived in England, where he has run a research group at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. He served from 2015 to 2020 as president of the Royal Society in London, covering the turbulent periods of Brexit and the early months of the pandemic.

In addition to winning the 2009 Nobel Prize for Chemistry (along with Thomas Steitz and Ada Yonath) for work on the functions and structure of ribosomes, Ramakrishnan has received the Padma Vibhushan (India’s second-highest civilian award), in 2010, and was knighted in the UK in 2012.

Excerpts from an interview on longevity, productivity, and the tangles of trying to live forever.

Why do you think people are obsessed with the idea of living forever?

The more we live, the more we have a chance to reproduce and pass on our genes.

Humans are the only species aware of mortality. Animals are aware of death. But we are the only species that knows we have an expiration date. That has always driven human culture: the fear of death.

All religions deal with death. What we fear more than dying is not existing. We identify ourselves with our consciousness and with being in the world, so we can’t imagine not being here.

Is eternal life possible?

We’re beginning to understand why ageing happens at multiple levels, from the level of the molecule to the entire organism. While eternal life is not possible at the moment, that’s not to say there won’t be breakthroughs in the future that will extend life. By how much is not clear.

But humans need to stay not just alive, but also healthy and productive.

I’m a little sceptical about the idea that if we live a very long time we’re going to be much more productive. Consider the productivity of Mozart, who died at 35, or Jane Austen, who died young but produced important novels. Living longer, there would be a temptation to slack off or be bored.

In many creative professions, people do their best work when they’re young. It’s not just that they’re young and have better cognition and brain power; it has also to do with novelty. When you’re young, everything is novel and you’re questioning ideas that you’re encountering for the first time. That freshness isn’t going to exist if you’re around “forever”. Though there would be exceptions, of course.

Would life without death become meaningless?

I am of the view that it would. Having mortality and knowing we’re here for a limited time is a great driving force to help us make the most of it.

There is also an element of narcissism in the idea that you’re so important that you need to exist forever. I wouldn’t want to die tomorrow or next year. But if you ask me, rationally, does the world need me to hang around for 200 years? I’d say “No.” The world would be fine without me.

In the book, you look at the latest science, but also point to some fundamental principles for extending healthy lifespans: good sleep, healthy diet, exercise.

Yes. Although the advice has been around for a long time, we’re only just now beginning to understand the science. But I don’t want to be too extreme. I resisted taking drugs for many years. But eventually my blood pressure got too high and my cholesterol wasn’t coming down, so I started taking anti-ageing medicines, whose main effect is to keep me healthy and alive for longer.

We also need to consider social disparities in ageing. The advice is very easy for upper-middle-class people to follow, as they can eat well and go to their gym. But if you’re poor, your diet isn’t great and there’s no time to exercise. It affects your sleep and you’re stressed out. Not only do the poor live almost a decade less than the rich, but they spend a larger portion of their lives unhealthy.

Can you tell us what your reaction was like when you heard you’d won the Nobel?

I wasn’t expecting it. The public hears about the Nobel but they don’t realise there are a number of other scientific prizes, and before the Nobel, many of those prizes went to other people. I was left out, so I thought the community didn’t rate my work at the same level. I figured I wouldn’t get it.

Also, Sweden had invited a bunch of us over, several years before the Nobel. At one of the meetings, I got into an argument about a technical matter with a Swedish scientist who works on the ribosome. I found out he was appointed to the Nobel committee a few months later, so I thought “Well, there’s no way this guy is ever going to want to give me the prize.” I underestimated his integrity. Even though he disagreed about one important area, he looked at my work overall. I admire that.

When I got the prize, it was a big surprise. I didn’t believe it at first.

A Nobel prize, presidency of the Royal Society, a knighthood, fellowships, awards… This is a tongue-in-cheek question: Do you ever worry that you haven’t achieved enough?

All these things make me sound like a member of the British establishment. But I grew up in a different area of India than where my parents were from. I’m a South Indian, ethnically Tamil, but I moved to Gujarat at the age of three. They spoke a different language from the state where I grew up. I didn’t understand a word the other children were saying. Ever since the age of three, I always felt like a bit of an outsider.

I went to the US and then came to Britain relatively late in life. I was an outsider again when I came to Britain. People laugh when I say I feel like an outsider. But it’s a subjective feeling.

Do you still feel like an outsider?

A little bit. I feel it less and less. I’m going to retire in the near future, most likely next year, and if I look back, I would say that my life has worked out beyond all my dreams. I’ve been extremely lucky. I don’t feel that I haven’t done enough. But I like to try new things, such as writing popular books, and get out of my comfort zone.

I’ve also started RNAvate. I’m starting something from scratch relatively late in life. In that sense, you’d say maybe I’m not satisfied. But it’s really about trying new things and maintaining a sense of excitement and purpose.

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