Why We Die by Venki Ramakrishnan

Reviewed by E. B. Heath

Ageing and death are currently hot topics in the publishing world.  No doubt influenced by a wave of Baby Boomers now facing the inevitable.  But they are not the only group chasing immortality.  There are many in affluent countries who are opting for their bodies to be preserved using the ‘science’ of cryonics.  An attempt to beat death that many believe to be delusional.  Venki Ramakrishnan discusses this in a latter chapter of Why We Die, but the bulk of his work details the scientific facts on the subject of ageing.  Not being attached to any commercial ventures and personally acquainted with leading figures in this field of research, he is free to separate scientific facts from the hype of vested interests.   (Some readers might find the dual-spelling, ‘ageing’ and ‘aging’, disconcerting, hopefully editors will fix in future editions.)

Ramakrishnan explains how ageing is connected with a plethora of genetic and biological processes.  He details the major advances in modern molecular biology, how the program of life, governed by our genes, is disrupted as we age.  He takes readers into the workings of the most basic form of life – the cell.  It makes fascinating reading. One might expect this exposition of cellular life to be complicated and dull for unscientific minds.  It is complicated, but not dull, and is well worth the effort.

To emphasise the complexities of the cell, Ramakrishnan makes comparisons with the elaborate structures of a large city, telling readers: Thousands of synchronized processes are required to keep it functioning.  He outlines the many processes that this most basic form of life performs, such as building elaborate structures, bringing in nutrients and exporting waste, transporter molecules are busy carrying essential material from one position to other parts of the cell where they are needed. Communicating and cooperating with neighbouring cells, knowing when to divide and when to stop doing so.  When cells malfunction and cease to perform these tasks death ensues.  To quote Ramakrishnan: … we stop functioning as a coherent whole. 

 These interesting facts are discussed along with recent leaps in knowledge. But Ramakrishnan also brings into the mix the colourful characters that populate the scientific world along with their competing theories and feuds.  Although, not all were engaged professionally as scientists.

Robert Ettinger was a college physics and math teacher, and a budding science fiction writer. A Google search informed that at the tender age of twelve Ettinger (1930) had been inspired by a science fiction story, the hero of which had his dead body launched into deep-frozen space preserved for forty million years, eventually aliens warmed him up and attached his brain to a mechanical body.  Whereas an entire field of biology, cryopreservation, has successfully managed to preserve small samples that are viable when resuscitated, Ettinger somewhat jumped the gun and founded the Cryonics Institute in 1976, convincing over a hundred people that for $28,000 they could follow his fictional hero’s example. Such is the fear of death.

Currently Alcor Life Extension Foundation charges $200,000 for whole-body storage. Then there are the transhumanists want to transcend their bodies entirely and only have their brains preserved.  A more economical way to go, or rather not to go.  Ramakrishnan explains the science of cryopreservation in chapter 11, ‘Crackpots or Prophets?’ informing readers:  The bad news is that there is not a shred of credible evidence that human cryogenics will ever work.

In chapter 11 readers will also meet Aubrey de Grey, a computer scientist:  With his two-foot-long beard and a matching messianic zeal … has amassed a large cultlike following. Meeting and marrying Adelaide Carpenter, a fly geneticist, incited his interest in biology particularly the mitochondrial free-radical theory of ageing. The upshot being that he ignored the conventional wisdom of the biological community and developed a seven-point plan to defeat ageing.  Scathing rebuttals ensued from leading gerontologists.  A most enjoyable chapter, as in all the chapters Ramakrishnan simultaneously educates and entertaining his readers.

The final chapter ‘Should we Live Forever?’ takes time to consider the many aspects of growing old, not least of which is the economic and ecological aspects.  Of course, the Planet Earth could not support the enormous population growth that would occur.  Optimists believe we will soon inhabit other planets and that will solve everything.  It seems to this reader that the fear of death trumps reality and delusion takes over.

Why We Die gives readers an insight to the amazing complexity of the human body, while having a most enjoyable time in the reading.  Ramakrishnan makes clear there is so much that is unknown, wild claims of vested interests should be approached with scepticism.

Why We Die

by Venki Ramakrishnan


Hachette Australia


ISBN:  978 152936 925 0



ISBN:  978 152936 926 7



ISBN: 978 152936 927 4



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