Do we create our own time? Dr. Mark Roth explores the answers

Cell biologist Dr. Mark Roth gets deep on suspended animation and philosophy with audience of marijuana enthusiasts
Dr. Mark Roth
Dr. Mark Roth, cell biologist at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, gave a lecture as part of The Goodship Academy of Higher Education Wednesday evening. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch

When master of ceremonies Greg Lundgren introduced Dr. Mark Roth at a lecture Wednesday, he couldn’t help but hype the cell biologist’s work.

“There is a little bit of a mad scientist in it,” Lundgren said. “It’s a little bit Frankenstein.”

When Roth got up in front of the microphone to deliver a talk titled “Altered States: Can we control time?” he didn’t disappoint.

The longtime Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientist was speaking at the third lecture of The Goodship Academy of Higher Education, a new salon series run by marijuana edibles company The Goodship in partnership with the Stranger. It’s billed as “a heady lecture series under heady influence” and attendees are encouraged to arrive “pre-boarded” — i.e., stoned.

Roth, not under the influence himself, started Wednesday’s discussion with his own heady ideas.

“Time is really change,” he said. “If we don’t have any change, time is meaningless. In fact, there is no time for things that do not have change. So hold that in your head, if you can.”

In the next 30 minutes, Roth went on to touch on many historical concepts of time and consciousness, from those of Einstein to Newton and his own research on suspended animation and preventing death from heart disease.

Setting sail on the Goodship

Despite their own altered states, the audience members seemed perfectly capable of holding that concept — and Roth’s more technical explanations of his own science — in their heads.

Everyone in the cozy space, hosted by co-working space The Cloud Room, appeared to be paying careful and quiet attention. Many took notes. The vibe wasn’t much different from any of the trendy bars surrounding the Cloud Room in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, save for the many trays of gourmet snacks scattered around the room.  And that atmosphere is pretty much what Jody Hall — who also founded Cupcake Royale, Seattle’s first cupcake bakery — envisioned when she launched The Goodship.

“The motivation for starting Goodship is around inspiring human connection. And that was my motivation at Cupcake Royale too,” Hall said. “These are places where people gather that aren’t their home or work; it’s another place where people know you and you can feel connected … Marijuana, if enjoyed responsibly, is a great way to disconnect to connect — to ideas, to discussion, to art, to music, to food — you name it.”

When Hall and her colleagues were thinking about how to best facilitate those connections for consumers of their pot products — and how to help the culture around marijuana, which is legal in Seattle, evolve from the “Cheech and Chong stigma,” as Hall puts it, to something more sophisticated and aboveboard — the idea of a lecture series bubbled up.

As Lundgren put it Wednesday, “It’s really fun to talk about big ideas when you’re high. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Getting into the weeds about time

The first big idea of the night was Einstein’s thought experiment known as the twin paradox, in which one twin takes an interstellar trip aboard a high-speed rocket ship, returning to Earth to find that the other twin has aged many more years during the journey.

Einstein’s concept has since been born out in experiments, Roth said, leading to the discovery of time dilation, in which two accurate clocks under different forces of gravity or acceleration will tick at apparently different rates. In 1971, scientists synchronized four atomic clocks, sending two on speedy jets in opposite directions around the world  and two remaining in one spot. At the end of the experiment, the traveling clocks were behind those that stayed still.

Roth thinks he can dilate time in a different way, without the use of planes or spaceships.

His Fred Hutch laboratory team studies suspended animation. More than 10 years ago, Roth discovered he could use small amounts of the normally toxic hydrogen sulfide gas to put mice, worms and other creatures into a state of temporary, reversible metabolic hibernation.

His work could one day buy time for people during traumas like surgery, heart attack or stroke.

But considered under a different lens, Roth’s discoveries could change how we think about time.

He believes he’s essentially recreating the twin paradox just by using natural chemical elements. Roth described his own generalized thought experiment based on his actual research, as follows:

Take two identical young twin animals, conceived within minutes of each other. These are laboratory model organisms that mature within mere days. Put one into suspended animation on a Monday. Let the other live its normal, animated life for two days. Wake up the suspended animal on a Wednesday — it’s still a child, identical at every level to how it appeared on Monday, while its sibling has grown up and had its own children, now older themselves than the suspended twin.

“You could say that the suspended creature wasn’t experiencing time but time was happening around it,” Roth said, describing the Newtonian view of time as an absolute, consistent entity. “Alternatively, and this is something I want to suggest, is that life actually creates time. We all create our own time. This creature had its own change to create, and by not creating its own time, it didn’t have time. It never had a Monday and a Tuesday.”

The deletion experiment

Roth’s “evil plan,” as he semi-jokingly described it to the Goodship audience, is to use his research to fix a large enough problem facing humanity that people will sit up and pay attention to his radical ideas.

He and his colleagues have discovered that they can apply suspended animation principles not only to entire organisms in the lab, but to specific parts of the human body. Namely, they believe they can put parts of the human heart into suspended animation to rescue the organ from possibly fatal injury following a heart attack.

Here, Roth segued into a very detailed description of what happens to the human body during and right after a heart attack. Cardiac arrest’s biggest threat occurs not when blood flow stops but when it rushes back in full force after the flow is restored (usually via angioplasty in the hospital) in what’s known as reperfusion injury.

Heart disease is the biggest killer of adult Americans, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and most of that death is due to reperfusion injury, Roth said. He thinks he can do something about it.

His team has already shown they can do this in mice in a study published earlier this year, dropping post-heart-attack damage by 90 percent with an IV infusion of selenide.

Roth hopes to convince emergency room physicians to open a clinical trial of the therapy within the next year.

After the talk, Roth described his long-term goal in less mad-scientist, more humanitarian terms. There were a lot of directions he could go after his discoveries on suspended animation, he said. Some of these directions came up in the post-lecture question and answer period: Are hibernating animals slowing their own time during the winter? Can people change their personal body chemistry through practiced meditation? Is climate change causing accumulation of environmental toxins that speed up or slow down time?

The biologist has thoughts on all of these topics. But ultimately, Roth said he thinks about the deletion experiment, which he describes as considering how the world would be different if you were suddenly deleted from history. And he thinks he has a unique contribution to make to the disease that kills more Americans than any other.

“I just want to do the thing that maximizes my usefulness, given the deletion criteria,” he said. So that’s where Roth is focusing all his own time.

Artist Jed Dunkerley illustrates each of the Goodship lectures. Here, reprinted with his permission, are his illustrations of Roth's lecture: 

Illustration by Jed Dunkerley
Illustration by Jed Dunkerley
Illustration by Jed Dunkerley
Illustration by Jed Dunkerley

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Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.

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