Concerns over the devaluation of gold currency led the Roman emperor Diocletian to ban alchemy in the third century, and worries about counterfeiting and debased coinage also lay behind the condemnations of the art by Pope John XXII in 1317 and of King Henry IV of England in 1403. ... “Fake” diamonds are cheaper, and for industrial uses they have utterly eclipsed their natural counterparts. But at the luxury end of the market—gemstones for jewelry—artificial diamonds account for only 2 percent of global sales. How come? ... When it comes to luxury and exotic materials, the competition between fake and real is partly a technical, chemical affair: how to create a good imitation, and how to spot it. But, as artificial gold and diamonds show, there is a deeper level to it, which is about something very human and socially constructed: the concept and value of authenticity. ... Mixed up with the human code of privilege and power is an ancient belief in the moral authority of nature’s divine handywork. ... the narrative often insinuates an almost moral authority of the “real” over the “fake.”
For decades, the solution to aging has seemed merely decades away. In the early nineties, research on C. elegans, a tiny nematode worm that resembles a fleck of lint, showed that a single gene mutation extended its life, and that another mutation blocked that extension. The idea that age could be manipulated by twiddling a few control knobs ignited a research boom, and soon various clinical indignities had increased the worm’s life span by a factor of ten and those of lab mice by a factor of two. The scientific consensus transformed. Age went from being a final stage (a Time cover from 1958: “Growing Old Usefully”) and a social issue (Time, 1970: “Growing Old in America: The Unwanted Generation”) to something avoidable (1996: “Forever Young”) or at least vastly deferrable (2015: “This Baby Could Live to Be 142 Years Old”). Death would no longer be a metaphysical problem, merely a technical one. ... The celebration was premature. Gordon Lithgow, a leading C. elegans researcher, told me, “At the beginning, we thought it would be simple—a clock!—but we’ve now found about five hundred and fifty genes in the worm that modulate life span. And I suspect that half of the twenty thousand genes in the worm’s genome are somehow involved.” That’s for a worm with only nine hundred and fifty-nine cells. ... For us, aging is the creeping and then catastrophic dysfunction of everything, all at once. ... The great majority of longevity scientists are healthspanners, not immortalists. They want to give us a healthier life followed by “compressed morbidity”—a quick and painless death. ... The battle between healthspanners and immortalists is essentially a contest between the power of evolution as ordained by nature and the potential power of evolution as directed by man. ... Aging doesn’t seem to be a program so much as a set of rules about how we fail. Yet the conviction that it must be a program is hard to dislodge from Silicon Valley’s algorithmic minds. If it is, then reversing aging would be a mere matter of locating and troubleshooting a recursive loop of code.
Meanwhile, a thousand miles west, on the prairies and farms of central Iowa, a 2-year-old boy named Clair Patterson played. His boyhood would go on to be like something out of Tom Sawyer. There were no cars in town. Only a hundred kids attended his school. A regular weekend entailed gallivanting into the woods with friends, with no adult supervision, to fish, hunt squirrels, and camp along the Skunk River. His adventures stoked a curiosity about the natural world, a curiosity his mother fed by one day buying him a chemistry set. Patterson began mixing chemicals in his basement. He started reading his uncle’s chemistry textbook. By eighth grade, he was schooling his science teachers. ... During these years, Patterson nurtured a passion for science that would ultimately link his fate with the deaths of the five men in New Jersey. Luckily for the world, the child who’d freely roamed the Iowa woods remained equally content to blaze his own path as an adult. Patterson would save our oceans, our air, and our minds from the brink of what is arguably the largest mass poisoning in human history.
The simple way is to think of a barrel like an inside-out tea bag. The wood of a barrel—they’re almost always made of white oak—contains compounds that taste good when they degrade, especially when the interior has been toasted or charred. The lignin, hemicellulose, and other polymers that give the wood structure break down to produce sweet, vanilla notes. Alcohol is an efficient solvent, so it seeps into the wood and captures these compounds. ... The complicated way to look at maturation is through organic chemistry. Yes, an alcohol solution extracts flavor from the broken-down wood. But slower, more elaborate chemical reactions also happen among the esters and acids in unaged liquor. A barrel sitting silently in a dark warehouse doesn’t look like it’s doing anything, but that’s deceptive. Over months and years, compounds decompose and recombine in dozens of different ways—with the chemicals leached from the oak, with oxygen that enters between the barrel’s staves, and with the ethanol itself.