Exchanges at the Frontier - a BBC World Service series
Do you want to live forever? The work of Cynthia Kenyon, an eminent Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics is at the cutting edge in the scientific quest for the fountain of youth. In her laboratory in California she has genetically altered worms so they live twice as long as normally, as she told a packed - and rapt - audience in London, part of 'Exchanges of the Frontier', a World Service series of conversations between some of the world's most brilliant scientists and the equally brilliant British philosopher, Professor A.C. Grayling.
I had no idea, until I heard Professor Kenyon, that there's a gene called Daf 2 that stops animals from staying young, what she called "the grim reaper gene" - and we have one too! When it's damaged - which is what she did to the worms in her laboratory - animals can live much longer and stay young twice as long, too, importantly. "What's the chance that you could do what you do to a worm to a person? Could you double our lifespan all at once?" she asked. "That is what happened in my lab to a worm, and you would never think that could happen. It was absolutely amazing. Could it happen to a person? I couldn't say it couldn't"
But would you want it to?
We in the audience weren't at all sure and debated the fascinating and profound questions raised by Cynthia Kenyon's work. Discussion and debate are integral to the public event at the Wellcome Collection and to the broadcast of the programmes on the World Service and online, and I'm sure the conversation will continue long afterwards. I was so glad I'd managed to get away from Bush House to attend this truly riveting event.
I believe that science is fundamental to an understanding of the world and we know it's important to our audiences because they tell us it is. Brilliant science programmes are essential and we need scientific understanding to inform non-specialist programmes like News. Crucially, for people like me, the complex language of specialism needs to be translated and I need to know more about that interface between science and everyday life. But we're in show biz, too, and audiences also want Science to be challenging, exciting, amusing and contentious at times. Cynthia, one of three women scientists in this series I am pleased to say, certainly ticked all those boxes.
I think the interview format works well too: Anthony Grayling wears his immense erudition lightly, has thought deeply about the impact of science on society and always has a twinkle in his eye. The interviews are conversational at times, challenging at others - close up and intimate, as the best radio should be. And the scientists, are keen communicators. In this series of five programmes, they'll be talking about superstring theory, Alzheimer's disease, malaria control and deviant behaviour - as well as how we might all live longer and stay younger.
And of huge importance, too, our partners in the project, the Wellcome Collection, are very happy. It's been a creative collaboration, allowing both of us to offer more to our audiences and to new ones - the outcome is most definitely bigger than the sum of its parts.
Although longevity pills may still be a few years away, thanks to this programme I think we'll all be transfixed by Cythnia's explanation of the process of ageing. Incidentally when we took her out for tea afterwards, whilst we all tucked into our chocolate cake, she insisted on ordering a cheese plate. You see, according to Cynthia's experiments, sugar is a baddie if you want to live to a long time.
Anne Koch is a Senior Commissioning Editor for BBC World Service
Exchanges At The Frontier is a series of public events held at the Wellcome Collection, in central London.
The series will be broadcast weekly on BBC World Service from 26 October to 24 November 2010.
You can find out more about the series on the Press Office Website.
You can view the BBC Archive Nobel Prize-winning scientists collection on the BBC Archive wesbite.