Is a 500-Year Human Life Span Just Around the Corner?
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Editor's note:The following is an excerpt from Jonathan Weiner's new book Long for This Worldwith the permission of Harper Collins.
Late August, late afternoon, cloudy-bright.
We’d taken a corner table at the Eagle, just inside the red door on Benet Street. From there, the tavern’s windows looked across to the tower of St. Benet’s Parish Church, the oldest tower in the town of Cambridge and the county of Cambridgeshire. The church’s foundation stones were laid almost a thousand years ago, when England was ruled by King Canute, son of the Viking King Sweyn Forkbeard, distant descendant of Gorm the Old.
A tavern stood across from that church tower in the year 1353, with beer for three gallons a penny -- with shops and markets up and down the street, then as now, and around the corner the spires of the University of Cambridge, pointing at the same cloudy English sky. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First, the tavern was called the Eagle and Child. Elizabethan scholars would have stared up at its gently swaying signboard and (gently swaying themselves) remembered the myth of Zeus, who swooped from the clouds in the shape of an eagle, caught a child named Ganymede, and flew him off to Mount Olympus to serve as the gods’ cupbearer, one of the immortals.
We’d been talking for an hour or two. The Eagle had been almost empty when we sat down. Now from the courtyard and the barrooms beyond we could hear more and more voices rising, glasses clinking. In the year 1940, in one of those barrooms, young pilots of the Royal Air Force who could not be sure they would come back placed chairs on tables, stood on the chairs, raised their cigarette lighters, and wrote their names on the ceiling with the soot of the flames. In another barroom, in the year 1953, two young biologists at the university used to meet over ale when they finished work at the Cavendish Laboratories, a few minutes’ stroll down the lane past the church. James Watson and Francis Crick were trying to solve the structure of DNA, and hoping (they were not yet quite sure) that they’d figured it out. “So,” Watson confesses in his memoir The Double Helix, “I felt a bit queasy when Francis went winging into the Eagle to shout that we had found the secret of life.”
The Eagle remembers the pilots, and Churchill’s praise: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” And in the DNA barroom, the present management has engraved a line from Watson’s memoir on the panes of the glass door: “I enjoyed Francis Crick’s words, even though they lacked the casual sense of understatement known to be the correct way to behave in Cambridge.”
Before the year 1500, when the College of Corpus Christi and the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is the nearest college of the university, built a chapel of its own, many of the school’s dons and scholars would have begun their days in the parish church and ended their days in the tavern.
In the church, the prayers of the ages: For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. In the tavern, the toasts of the ages: May you enter heaven late! May you live a hundred years! May you always drink from a full glass! They prayed for long life in the pews and they proposed long life in the pub, being the same mortals from morning to night.