12/12/2014 01:55 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Man's Quest for Immortality


The Eagle, a historic pub located in Cambridge, England, is probably best known for what happened on Feb. 28, 1953, when James Watson and Francis Crick rushed in and announced to all who could hear that they had discovered the secret of life. It was only minutes earlier that they had experienced their "Eureka!" moment around the corner in the Cavendish Laboratories, and Francis Crick felt the urge to immediately share it with the world. As a consequence of this notable event in the history of science, The Eagle has its own unique brand of ale, called "DNA," to commemorate and enshrine the famous discovery of the structure of the genetic material.

Ten years earlier, The Eagle was full of RAF and American fighter and bomber pilots who were in the midst of fighting the Second World War. Smoke, laughter, ale, and an unspoken tension filled the pub as these brave young men returned from their missions over Germany. All too often they learned that their brothers in arms were not coming back. If you look up on the ceiling of The Eagle, you will see burned in black on a brownish-orange background the many units of the Royal and American Air Forces that regularly gathered there. It started when one officer put a chair on a table, climbed up, and using a lighter, burned in the name of his squadron. You can find "Bert's Boys, the 196th Squadron," "The Pressure Boys," the 500th, 46th, the 323rd, and close to 50 other flying units memorialized there. What is it that connects these two seemingly-unrelated events? What connects Watson and Crick to bomber pilots? Is it simply the local pub where they downed an occasional bitter? I believe there is more.

Those pilots were acutely aware of their mortality, more so than most people ever are. They knew that at any moment they could be sent on a mission that would be their last. So what inspired them to inscribe the names of their squadrons on the ceiling of The Eagle? I suspect that it was out of a desire to be remembered. For both practical reasons and aspects of the military culture, they did not inscribe their own names, but instead that of their military unit. Nevertheless, the motivation is similar to that of Napoleon's troops who defaced the Pyramids and the Sphinx with graffiti. They were proclaiming, "I was here. I lived. Remember me after I'm gone."

What does this have to do with Watson and Crick? They knew that they were working on one of the most fundamental questions in all of biology. Even though they had not yet even submitted their letter to Nature magazine nor yet received the Nobel Prize, they were well aware that their insight would lead to scientific fame. And in a way that few scientists ever do, they did achieve celebrity for their discovery. Watson and Crick are on a short list of scientists whose names are widely known. Along with Einstein, Darwin, Newton, Galileo, and Aristotle, their names will live on long after their death.

One may legitimately ask, is fame the motivation behind the work of Crick and Watson? To be fair, the importance of the work itself, and the fascination and implications of their scientific discovery were the primary motivations. However, scientists like all people are only human. It would be difficult to believe that they were unaware of the potential for recognition and success that would follow from their work.

Scientists are of course, not alone in their desire for recognition. In nearly every walk of life, success brings recognition and sometimes fame. Of course actors, politicians, and broadcast journalists are more likely to achieve broad celebrity upon achieving success than are scientists or businessmen. There are without a doubt many politicians with good intentions to serve the public, actors who care deeply about their art, and journalists who work hard to inform the public. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that fame does not motivate their desire for success at some (if not the primary) level. Other types of artists such as musicians and writers and directors can also achieve fame from being highly successful. And for each of these types of work, only a tiny percentage of the most successful in their field actually achieve celebrity. If the success rate is so low, why is Hollywood filled with so many would-be stars waiting tables? What drives them to fight the odds? Is it the art? The fame? Or the fortune?

I would venture to say that it is all of the above. Clearly one does not try to be an actor if you do not love to act, and the wealth that accompanies success as an actor doesn't hurt either. But in almost all cases, I would propose that the desire for fame and celebrity is there, either consciously or unconsciously. I don't think that most artists, scientists, or politicians while away their time wishing they were famous. But deep down many secretly hope for it and work towards it. Why? Why should we care if strangers know us, or our work? What difference does it make to us?

I believe that it is less the fame that we achieve here and now that drives us, than it is the lasting fame that continues after we die. Why do actors wish so desperately to win an Academy Award even after they achieve celebrity and material wealth? What drives scientists to dream of a Nobel Prize? Why do military dictators fill their nations with statues and monuments to themselves? Some would call it ego, pure and simple. But I think that more deeply, everyone wants to be remembered.

Admittedly, there are many, many people who are quite humble and have no interest in (and even aversion to) fame and celebrity. Nevertheless, even these people often work to make the world a better place and do care that their actions have lasting impact on the future of humanity. They still are motivated to do or create something that will live on after they are gone.

One of the things that makes us uniquely human is the awareness of our own mortality. We all know that we have a limited time on this Earth, and what we do in life often is defined by how we deal with this unmovable truth. Many seek immortality through their religious beliefs in life after death. For them, they feel safe in their view that immortality will come from their faith and reward from God. But for many others, whether or not they are religious, this is not enough. They want to be remembered by future generations here on Earth for their accomplishments. This is why writers write, why painters paint, why actors act, why musicians record, and why scientists publish. We are creating something more permanent than ourselves. We are affecting society and our fellow citizens. And most importantly, we want to change the world in some way for the better. We want to make a difference and leave a legacy.

I suggest that this desire for legacy and immortality is quite fundamental to human nature. In the coming weeks, I will be posting examples that illustrate this idea. I hope you enjoy them.