Posts Tagged ‘Death’

What is Life?

June 28, 2017
Royal Trinity Hospice

A pond in the garden of the Royal Trinity Hospice.

On Monday, my good friend Paula Chandler died.

It seems shocking to me that I can even type those words.

She had cancer, and was in a hospice, and her passing was no surprise to her or those who loved her. But it was, and still is, a terrible shock.

It is unthinkable to me that we will never converse again.

How can someone be alive and completely self-aware and witty on Saturday; exchanging texts on Sunday evening; and then simply gone on Monday morning?

Her body was still there, but the essential spark that anyone would recognise as being ‘Paula’, was gone.

As I sat in the garden of the Royal Trinity Hospice, I reflected on a number of things.

And surrounded by teeming beautiful life, the question of “What is Life?” came to my mind. Paula would have been interested in this question.

What is life?

In particular I tried to recall the details of the eponymous book by Addy Pross.

In honesty I can’t recommend the book because it singularly fails to answer the question it sets itself.

In the same way that a book called “How to become rich” might provide an answer for the author but not the reader, so Addy Pross’s book was probably valuable for Addy Pross as he tried to clarify his thoughts. And to that extent the book is worth reading.

Life is ubiquitous on Earth, and after surveying previous authors’ reflections, Addy Pross focuses the question of “What is Life?” at one specific place: the interface between chemistry and biology:

  • In chemistry, reactions run their course blindly and become exhausted.
  • In biology, chemistry seeks out energy sources to maintain what Addy Pross calls a dynamic, kinetic stability.

So how does chemistry ‘become’ biology?

In the same way that a spinning top is stable as long as it spins. Or a vortex persists in a flowing fluid. Similarly life seems to be a set of chemical reactions which exhibit an ability to ‘keep themselves going’.

What is life?

Re-naming ‘life’ as ‘dynamic kinetic stability’ does not seem to me to be particularly satisfactory.

It doesn’t explain how or why things spontaneously acquire dynamic kinetic stability any more than saying something is alive explains its aliveness.

I do expect that one day someone will answer the question of “What is Life?” in a meaningful technical way.

But for now, as I think about Paula, and the shocking disappearance of her unique dynamic kinetic stability, I am simply lost for words.

Who is going to die in 2048?

April 9, 2014
Age Standardised UK Mortality

Graph showing Age-Standardised UK Mortality per 100,000 of population per year. In 2010 mortality was around 1100 per 100,000, so for the UK population of 60 million we would expect around 660,000 deaths per year. However if the trend continues, no one will die in 2048!

While investigating causes of death in the United Kingdom, I came across the data above. The graph shows that the age-standardised mortality in the UK has been falling since at least 1980 – and shows no signs of stopping.

Indeed, if the trend continues, then sometime around the 14th March 2048, mortality will reach zero and no one will die in the UK!

Now of course, although this data is real and correct, the trend can’t possibly continue indefinitely. But the data is nonetheless fascinating for at least three reasons.

Firstly, in the face of seemingly endless stories telling us all how unhealthy we are – it seems that the trend to lower mortality is continuing unabated, despite the obesity ‘crisis’.

Secondly, although the linear trend in the data is striking, we have no justification for extrapolating the trend into the future. Why? Because its the future! And we don’t know what is going to happen in the future.

And finally, these numbers give us a scale for considering the relative seriousness of different causes of death: that was the reason I looked up the data in the first place.

I read that air pollution causes 30,000 deaths a year in the UK and that seemed a surprisingly large number. From the graph we can estimate that mortality in 2014 is approximately 1000 deaths per 100,000 of population per annum. So that that for the UK population of 60 million, this is about 5% of deaths – which still seems shockingly high, but is a smidgeon closer to believability.

So good news all round: especially if you, like me, are a man. The mortality of men and women is shown separately below.

If the trend continues, then after millennia of ‘excess male mortality’, the mortality of men should fall below that of women in approximately 2027 and reach zero in 2042 – before the women – who will not attain immortality until 2060!

Age Standardised UK Mortality by sex

Graph showing Age-Standardised UK Mortality per 100,000 of population per year for men and women. If trends continue, male mortality will fall below female mortality in 2027 and no men will die at all after 2042!

 UPDATE

Dave asked: Are you sure age standardised mortality means what you think it does? Age standardised mortality might drop to zero. But that is not mortality. If the plot showed mortality that would suggest life expectancy has doubled since 1980, from 50 to nearly 100.

And I replied: The calculation is this:

  • How many people died in a particular year aged (say) 69.
  • This number is then expressed as a fraction of the actual UK population who were aged 69.
  • This is then expressed as an actual number who would have died in a ‘standard population’ called the European Standard Population.

This procedure allows the relative mortality in different countries to be compared

So, if for example, the UK has a high absolute mortality for 69 year-olds, but not many 69 year olds – then this will produce a larger number when ‘age standardised’.

I have obtained one or two sets of actual death data – but I don’t know the equivalent population to divide by to get the absolute mortality per 100,000. However this data shows a similar trend with roughly the same intercept.

What does it mean? I don’t know! I think it means that we are living longer (Is that news?). I was just struck by how straight the line was and how it begged to be extrapolated!


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