"Shoulao, God of Longevity, with his attendants in the heavens." Zhang Liu. 16th Century. (image: Shanghai Museum)

It would seem that one of the few certainties about life — and a fundamental fact of any complex system — is death. The second law of thermodynamics dictates that all systems tend toward disorder. Institutions can last only as long as they reflect the needs and values of the mortal individuals they serve, cities and civilizations eventually collapse, and stars implode and swallow their planets. But is immortality necessarily impossible?

A September 27–29 workshop, the Complex Time General Conference on Immortality, will meet to explore general patterns for lifespan across scales, from organisms, the mind, and behavior, to civilizations and star systems. The organizers hope to challenge preconceptions about immortality and, eventually, develop a general theory of longevity. 

“Entropy would almost insist that there is no such thing as immortality,” says Caitlin McShea, SFI’s Director of Experimental Projects and co-organizer of the workshop. “But we are bringing in the idea that life might approach immortality at the level of emergent phenomena that come from living systems — things like ideas or technology or culture.” 

Among the workshop’s several dozen participants will be researchers who led topical-track meetings over the past five years under the Aging, Adaptation, and the Arrow of Time theme, which is funded by the James S. McDonnell Foundation Complex Time Grant. The meetings have explored questions about time and aging as they relate to single-celled aging, infectious diseases, cognitive health, regeneration, and more.

“We have an understanding of how time works in the universe, but it doesn’t actually describe the world we are occupying. The experience of living matter is, far and away, different from the experience of an inanimate particle. At SFI, we’ve been trying to probe that difference for a long time, and it’s hugely important as we begin to engineer new systems or interventions for making the systems we have even better,” says McShea. “We have here the potential for something like a general theory of living matter, and that’s deeply coupled to how time functions in our universe.” 

Throughout the workshop, organizers of the topical-track meetings will give “thunder talks” — a slightly longer, more informative variation on “lightning talks” — on insights from their earlier meetings. New participants, including physics- and theory-minded representatives, will broaden the expertise of the group to help identify general patterns observed across these various systems’ lifespans. And while there are no specific outputs expected from the workshop, organizers hope it will serve as a jumping-off point for new focused meetings in the future. 

This event is supported by the James S. McDonnell Foundation Grant Number 220020491, Adaptation, Aging, and the Arrow of Time. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the James S. McDonnell Foundation.