The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.
— Albert Einstein, 1938
Most “advances” are purely incremental. We make minor advances in current techniques or technology, we marginally improve our existing surgery or drugs, or we precisely define the specifications of previously known molecules. Rarely do we develop a novel technology, an unprecedented therapy, or a distinctively new theory. Truly innovative, unexpected, and compelling changes require that – as Einstein said – we “regard old problems from a new angle.” Genuine advances in science don’t require experimental skill, they require conceptual creativity.
Advances require us to look at things in an entirely new way.
Our ability to cure age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, does not depend on incremental improvements, but on exactly such changes in how we look at things. The same, it turns out, is true of aging and – oddly enough – telomeres. We automatically view the world through our preconceptions, and this has always been true. Upon seeing the world’s first automobile, and unable to grasp the idea of a “horseless carriage”, we asked where the horse was attached. Upon seeing the world’s first television, and unable to grasp the idea of an electron tube, we asked how tiny people fit into that television cabinet. We continually look at new things, but we see them using old eyes.
As an analogy, imagine a group of castaways who have spend years trapped on a large, unexplored, tropical island. Two of the castaways are exploring an unfamiliar beach, when they come upon a large, entirely unexpected, and unfamiliar object. The first castaway, a bright academic, carefully measures the dimensions of every single part of the object. She tells the rest of the castaways about her measurements and they present her with an award for her hard work. To some acclaim, she explains that the unknown object might actually prove useful: the castaways could use it to 1) hang up their laundry, 2) provide shade from the hot tropical sun, and, 3) offer shelter during tropical storms. The second castaway has a more intuitive and creative bent. He carefully looks over the object, announces that it’s a plane, and offers to fly it off the island and save their lives.
Sometimes, it’s not the measurements, it’s the ability to see new possibilities.
In the case of aging and age-related diseases, the odd thing is that most people don’t see how anything can be done. They still want to hang their laundry on the wings of the plane, without realizing that the airplane can fly them to safety. At best, they concede that aging might be slowed down, perhaps with diet, exercise, stress management, and other behavioral changes. The idea that aging can be reversed, or that age-related diseases can be cured, is anathema to their thinking, despite the solid evidence in cells, tissues, and animal studies. I first described the potential of telomeres for clinical therapy 20 years ago and the evidence has been growing steadily since then, yet the general public, the media, and many academics still think of telomeres as a place to hang laundry, provide shade, and offer shelter from the rain. Is it really that hard to recognize a plane? Apparently so.
It would appear that the only way to show people what telomeres can do is to fly the plane and safe lives.