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Dr Who: The Lazarus Experiment - John C. Kirk

May. 8th, 2007

01:00 am - Dr Who: The Lazarus Experiment

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Last night I watched the latest Doctor Who episode (The Lazarus Experiment). I thought it was quite good, although it felt a bit padded; I was expecting it to end at about the 35 minute mark, and I think they could have trimmed the story down to 30 minutes quite easily. (Granted, that wouldn't have fitted the timeslot.) Mainly it was interesting because of the questions it raised, more than the way it answered them; there was also some creative first aid from "Dr" Martha.

The basic story here is that Dr Lazarus (an old man) invents a machine which restores his youth, thus offering the promise of eternal life. The Doctor turns up, and is unimpressed by this plan. Then there's a bunch of pseudo-science where Lazarus turns into a shape-shifting monster that has to suck the "life force" out of people, leaving them as dessicated husks.

The obvious allusion here is to the story of Lazarus in the New Testament: he was a man who died, and then Jesus performed a miracle by bringing him back to life. (There's an explicit acknowledgment of this later in the episode, where the Doctor says that it "seems appropriate" for Lazarus to still be alive after he appeared to be dead.) Personally, I thought this was a bit clumsy, but I suppose that if I can accept Otto Octavius becoming Dr Octopus then I ought to be forgiving here too; maybe it was the constant jokes that got him interested in the subject in the first place.

As for the main concept, the Doctor claimed that this was against the laws of Nature, but I don't see it that way. I'm not an expert in this field, but here's my basic understanding: Every cell in our body contains a complete set of our DNA, with all the instructions for building you. These cells are continuously being replaced, so they make copies of themselves. If you think about photocopying a page in a magazine, and then making a photocopy of that copy, and then a photocopy of the second copy, and so on, you'll eventually wind up with a pretty blurry print-out, due to cumulative errors. In a similar way, the copies of our DNA in our cells gradually get degraded, and this accounts for things like grey hair and wrinkles.

Continuing the analogy, if you make a digital copy of a computer file then the copy is exactly the same as the original. You can keep making copies of copies of copies, and 1000 "generations" later you'd still have something which is identical to your original file. So, I think that ageing is due to a flaw in the copying process, and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with correcting that flaw. Rather than messing around with sonic waves, I think the way to do it would be to make a sample of your DNA while you're young, and store it. Then when you get older, you'd need to re-introduce the "perfect" copy, and get that to replicate itself like a virus. I'm not quite sure how you'd achieve this, but the theory seems plausible to me.

The main problem I'd see with this approach is overpopulation: if people stay eternally young, and keep having children, you'll wind up with too many people and not enough resources to sustain them. Mind you, this process wouldn't eliminate death altogether: you could still be run over by a car or die of cancer. Also, it would depend on whether it's available to everyone, or just a select few, so if Lazarus just kept the technology for himself then there wouldn't be any major demographic shifts. For that matter, given that there's no UK legislation for maximum number of children per household, it would be a bit unfair to single out this one method as being wrong. Anyway, this does raise interesting questions, which have been dealt with in various ways in other SF stories; for instance, there was a short Future Shocks comic (written by Alan Moore) where nobody is allowed to have children anymore, so couples rent kiddie robots at Christmas. Another approach would be to start colonising other planets, which would at least delay the long term problem. However, this episode didn't even mention this issue at all.

Aside from the knee-jerk reaction that the experiment was unnatural, the Doctor also argued that immortality could be a curse rather than a gift. This seemed a bit hypocritical to me, given that he's had plenty of additional lifetimes (with several more to come), but I suppose there's an argument for saying that he can speak from experience. The Highlander TV series also addressed this issue, by showing the different ways that immortals have handled their long lives. Paraphrasing from memory, one conversation went like this:

Lazarus: "I've got so much more to accomplish, think what I can do with the extra time."
Doctor: "It doesn't work like that - some people achieve more in 20 years than others do in 80."
Lazarus: "Yes, but think about what the right person can do!"

Again, I'd have to side with Lazarus on this one. I'm willing to accept the Doctor's premise that some people are amazingly productive, while others waste their lives in futile pursuits (arguably including blogging!), and I've heard the theory that "the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long". However, if Einstein had been able to live 50 years longer, maybe he'd have figured out his grand unified theory; I'm sure there are several other great minds you could say similar things about. One problem with humans is that we can spend our lives becoming experts in a particular field, then we die, and someone else has to start all over again by learning the basics. There's a novel by Marvin Minsky and Harry Harrison where they claim that a machine intelligence is essentially immortal (given that you can replace any defective parts), and I can see definite benefits to that.

Ultimately, the moral issues were side-stepped in favour of vampire logic: if Lazarus can only sustain his youth by killing other people then that's not fair, because he's preventing them from achieving things in their future.

At the end of the episode, Lazarus was killed, after Martha and her sister lured him (in monster form) into the bell-tower and the Doctor played loud organ music. This struck me as slightly odd. The original experiment involved the use of sonic waves, so I can accept the premise that a loud noise could make the monster vulnerable. (There's an old Spider-Man story where he does something similar, aided by church bells.) However, why go up to the bell tower if you're not going to use the bells? I don't know a great deal about Southwark Cathedral, but I'd expect the organ to be louder in the main part of the church, since that's where the people are sitting, and there aren't any walls/ceilings in the way. Also, unless I missed something, the sound didn't have any "weird science" effect on the monster, it just knocked him off balance so that he fell down to ground level. I'm aware that the inner ear controls balance, and I once (accidentally) sounded a small bell while I was on a church roof, which was loud enough to leave me vibrating for a couple of seconds. However, if the noise was loud enough to knock the monster off balance, and loud enough for Tish (the sister) to cover her ears, how come it didn't affect Martha (who was dangling from a walkway at the time)? Her hearing didn't even seem to be affected afterwards.

Moving on to other aspects of the episode, at one point the Doctor was running away from the monster with Martha and Tish. All three of them were running downstairs, and the Doctor took the lead, which seemed rather unchivalrous of him! Given that he was the fastest runner, I'd expect him to bring up the rear, so that he could fight the monster off with his sonic screwdriver if necessary. This would make some sense if he wanted to run on ahead to warn the rest of the guests, but he didn't try warning them until the two women had caught up with him, and nobody listened to him anyway (until the monster appeared).

During the ensuing stampede, Martha's brother (Leo) was hit in the head by a flying tray. She gave him a quick check, by tilting his head back and looking at his eyes, then announced that he had a concussion. Quoting from the first aid manual:

Concussion produces widespread but temporary disturbance of normal brain activity. However, it is not normally associated with any lasting damage to the brain. The casualty will suffer impaired consciousness, but this only lasts for a short time (usually only a few minutes) and is followed by a full recovery. By definition, concussion can only be confidently diagnosed once the casualty has completely recoved.


(My emphasis.)

So, there might be situations where you suspect that someone has a concussion, in which case you should keep them under observation to see what happens; bearing that in mind, I think that Martha's mother had a point when she complained about her abandoning them outside the building (when she went back inside). It's not as if Martha was particularly helpful to the Doctor: she returned his sonic screwdriver, but he might not have needed that if he hadn't had to take care of her.

As for checking someone's eyes, there are normally two things you can do following a head injury:

a) Move a finger back and forth, getting the person to follow it with their eyes. Normally, both eyes will move together, so if they move independently then that's a bad sign. Martha didn't do any finger waving.

b) Shine a light into one eye, to see whether the pupil contracts and then dilates again when the light is removed. Normally, only that one eye will respond to the light, so if both eyes react the same way then that's bad. It's also a bad sign if the eye you shine a light into doesn't react at all, although you have to choose the right location (e.g. not standing in bright sunlight). Unless Martha can make her eyes glow, she didn't do that test either.

So, bearing that in mind, I'm not sure what she did achieve by peering into Leo's eyes, I'm not convinced that she gave an accurate diagnosis, and if the diagnosis was accurate then I don't think that she treated it appropriately. All in all, not a shining example of first aid. On the plus side, it does give me extra material for my training video.

While I'm siding with Martha's mother, I also think that she had a good point about the fact that Martha has only just met the Doctor, so it's a bit soon for her to be falling in love with him. Granted, more time has passed for Martha than for the rest of her family (and she's less of a slapper than her cousin), but she does still seem to be jumping the gun a bit. In fact, borrowing a phrase from Wayne's World, I'd say that she seems to be moving into "psycho hosebeast" territory: she's convinced herself that she and the Doctor ought to be a couple, without any signs that he's interested in that, and then she's annoyed with him for taking her to the same place as Rose, because it seems like "rebound" behaviour. At this rate, she'll be getting annoyed with him for forgetting the anniversary of when they didn't have their first date! However, I'm going to give the writers the benefit of the doubt here, and say that this is a deliberate choice to set up drama in later episodes.

Ending on a positive note, I did like the sibling banter that went on at one point: Martha's mother complained that the whole mess was the Doctor's fault, but Leo said that it was actually Tish's fault (since she worked for Lazarus and had invited everyone else to the reception), so Tish elbowed him in the stomach.

Speaking of TV, there have been some problems with cable TV in the US:
Tots tune in to Disney Channel, get hardcore pornography instead
(as referenced in the latest Punch an' Pie strip).

And finally, on an unrelated note: I've now set up my LJ to screen anonymous comments, because I keep getting spam. At least this way the rest of you don't have to see it (if it takes me a while to delete it), but I may wind up blocking anonymous comments altogether if this keeps up. (I've been dutifully marking each comment as spam when I delete it, but I'm not sure whether the LiveJournal servers can do anything useful with that info.)

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Comments:

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From:karne_k
Date:May 8th, 2007 10:28 am (UTC)
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>In a similar way, the copies of our DNA in our cells gradually get degraded,
>and this accounts for things like grey hair and wrinkles.

No offence, but this is very, very, wrong :)

DNA replication is incredibly accurate with errors in the region of 1 in 10^4 to 10^5 base pairs, with the huge majority of these being caught and corrected by a variety of 'proofreading' systems. The final resulting error rate is about 1 base pair (in 3 billion for a human) per cell division. Since a large amount of human DNA is either not apparently in use or inactive, most of these errors have no effect or if they do, they kill the cell concerned. A very, very, small number activate oncagenes and result in cancers.

The primary 'damage' that happens to DNA on replication is telomere shortening. Due to the way DNA replication works (at least in eukaryotes), chunks off the end of the strands are lost or missed out at each copying cycle. The telomeres are sequences of non-coding DNA that act as buffers against this. Once the telomeres 'run out', the next replication cycle starts cutting chunks out of the encoding DNA - which in turn results in a poorly functional or (more likely) dead cell.

It seems likely that loss of telomeres from cells (and hence loss of the cells themselves) as tissue age result in some but not all of the effects of aging. It has also been suggested that telomerase – a telomere repairing enzyme found in eukaryotic germs cells – might be used to reverse some of these effects (assuming you can magically turn it on in all cells). The problem is that telomeres appear to explicitly evolved to limit the number of replication cycles a particular line of cells can go through (before it damages its own genome and dies) with the aim of reducing the effects of DNA replication errors and the resulting oncagenesis (cancer formation).

Hence, the aging process may actually be a symptom of the body being evolved to 'run as long as possible' before oncagenesis. The cellular damage that results is actually self inflicted and solving it (say via stem cell or gene therapy) doesn't actually help much until you can cure cancer.

PS: I'm a chemist not a biologist and the above is simplified for easy of explanation. Anyone reading this who knows more than me and spots errors – please forgive and explain them :)
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From:susannahf
Date:May 8th, 2007 11:00 am (UTC)
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If you believe in the premise of "The Selfish Gene" - which is reasonable but has some flaws, there is also an evolutionary reason for aging.

Assumptions:
1) Organisms exist to perpetuate their genetic information
2) Genes that confer advantage to offspring will dominate

From this you get the conclusion that the most "successful" genes will cause their carrier organisms to be highly fertile and resistant to disease. However, there are limited resources, so you can't be too fertile (otherwise all your offspring will die of starvation), and you shouldn't have infertile organisms (old people) using up resources that could be better spent on fertile or pre-fertile organisms.

So aging can be argued to be a desirable trait from an evolutionary point of view. Once you are no longer capable of passing on your genetic material, you die.

Of course, this is a gross simplification leaving out all sorts of aspects like post-fertile adults providing childcare and education while the fertile adults do the hunting and so on, but the gist still holds.
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From:karne_k
Date:May 8th, 2007 01:19 pm (UTC)
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I'm trying not to side-track the discussion too much, so I'll keep this short :)

>From this you get the conclusion that the most "successful" genes will cause
>their carrier organisms to be highly fertile and resistant to disease.

Not quite. The Selfish Gene says:

1 - genes exists to replicate (and replicate to exists)
2 - genes replicate via the mechanism of animals (plants, bacteria, slime moulds etc.)
3 - the most common genes are those that best help their animal pass on more copies of themselves

The latter means that the 'best' genes are those that best help their animal (i) survive within their ecological niche (or take over another one) and (ii) produce the most offspring *which in turn must survive to breed*.

This implies that diseases that occur after reproduction are irrelevant to evolution (although not the case with primate or other animals with significant levels of 'grandmother' infant care) and that high fertility is only required in situations of high infant mortality. Small numbers of well cared for offspring, whom in turn have an excellent chance of passing on their genes to their own offspring, are actually more valuable from the selfish genes' 'point of view' than large numbers of poorly/not cared for ones, many of whom die. Logically, the former strategy is aided by longer life spans and higher levels of intelligence. Cooperation between related individuals, group living, communication and the development of language also all help. Think pride of lions, troop of baboons or humans societies.

> However, there are limited resources, so you can't be too fertile

Efficient use of limited external resources isn't really an evolutionary issue per se, its effect is minimal unless an animals' breeding is so extreme that they use up all the resources in their niche before their offspring themselves can breed. The selfish gene isn't able to see the long term picture (please ignore my anthropomorphic terminology!), otherwise we'd not see the common cycle of 'boom-bust' in animal populations.

Dragging myself back to the point. I'm sure aging does have an evolutionary aspect, but I suspect that it's more a case of (i) how much internal energy/resources should be put into this individual breeding now vs living longer? and not (ii) when should this individual die off to allow their offspring access to its external resources?

As always, there are some special cases – spider mothers using their own bodies to feed their young, being one I can think of. In general though, the most powerful evolutionary forces are the simple ones – the ones that work directly on individuals and directly effect their breeding success.
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From:johnckirk
Date:May 8th, 2007 02:58 pm (UTC)
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I remember a line from a Spider-Man comic, where the High Evolutionary said that "cloning stagnates the evolutionary process". So, from the point of view of improving the species through natural selection, I'd agree that you don't want immortality for everyone. (I think it was one of the Dawkins books which said that evolution relies on non-random death.)

Thinking about genetic algorithms, the idea is that you start out with a pool of possible solutions, and then use them to generate new ones. However, unlike biological organisms, the old solutions don't automatically die out - they get compared to the offspring, and then the best subset from both generations combined gets to live on. So, there's no real concept of age: you may wind up with an original solution still intact after 70 generations, and it's just assessed on its own merits.
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From:karne_k
Date:May 8th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
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[posted again, sorry John please nuke the anon post - I hate LJ sometimes! :) ]

Evolution is neither good for the species (which is an arbitrary descriptive label used by humans because we can understand it better than 'semi-closed subset of the available gene space') nor any individual in it. It fact it's not good for anyone; it's a natural process that occurs whenever you take information and process it in a 'genetic' fashion. You can see evolution occurring in e.g. software viruses and antivirus systems. The concept of the rightness of the 'March of Evolution' is a religious idea as much as any other. Humans have used evolution as a tool for millennia, whether it be for animal husbandry or microchip design - seeing it as anything else is silly :)

>However, unlike biological organisms, the old solutions don't >automatically die out

Don't relate a genetic algorithm's solution to an individual. A better relationship is between each separate test that you run on that solution (to check its efficacy) and an individual. You'll probably run hundreds if not thousands of tests (in order to get statistical strictness) and the same applies in nature. Old gene solution certainly don't die out - not at the time scale you're thinking of and mixing between the old and the new is very common. Indeed, the concept of generations of solutions in genetic algorithms is artificial (and imposed simply to make things easier for us humans); evolution in nature is a lot less quantised than that.

As in your example, if you take a culled population of say 1000 rabbits of a particular genotype and you put them through 70 generations (oo.. say a 50 years) in environment that they've evolved to match and if that environment doesn't change, then I'd fully expect the rabbits at the end to be very similar to the ones you started with. Unless they’ve evolved to avoid your culling technique, of course.

You'll also have one hell of a rabbit skin carpet...

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From:johnckirk
Date:May 8th, 2007 02:39 pm (UTC)
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Ah, thanks for the clarification :)

So, if you could use this telomerase stuff, you should still have enough good copies of your DNA (in an old person's body), without needing a sample from your younger self?
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From:karne_k
Date:May 8th, 2007 03:32 pm (UTC)
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Telomerase can be used to repair telomers, since the 'buffer' DNA that makes them up is meaningless, almost any non-cancer cell in the body would be sufficient recover a 'clean' DNA sample. Or you could get it from stem cells from bone marrow or the gonads or something and not bother with the telomerase.

The Dr Who science in this episode was utter junk btw :)
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From:shuripentu
Date:May 8th, 2007 10:05 pm (UTC)
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I haven't watched this episode, but if it was anything like the first episode, you have to hang your lab coat at the door to enjoy it. :)

Moral of the story: Just as the "first aid" on TV is a load of hogwash, so is the "science" on TV. And in books. And indeed on the news most of the time.

Which reminds me, I promised someone I'd explain to them why the "science" in Angels and Demons is a great big steaming pile of ocelot poo...
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