Is Age the Enemy of Ideas? Age vs. Youth, Wisdom vs. Naiveté

I wrote the following about seven years ago, when I was twenty-three.  I was kind of obsessed then with growing older and what that would mean for how I saw and thought about the world.  I remember coming across an essay by Alan Lightman, a physicist turned novelist and essayist who most famously wrote a beautiful little book called Einstein’s Dreams.  In his essay Lightman explored the relationship between youth and the productivity of physicists.  He lamented that most physicists do their best work while they’re in their twenties and thirties, after which their ideas peter out and, as Lightman suggests, they become largely irrelevant to the advancement of science.  Below is an excerpt of Lightman’s essay, followed by my naive thoughts on it:

 The limber years of scientists, as for athletes, generally come at a young age.  Isaac Newton was in his early twenties when he discovered the law of gravity, Albert Einstein was twenty-six when he formulated special relativity, and James Clerk Maxwell had polished off electromagnetic theory and retired to the country by thirty-five.  When I hit thirty-five myself, I went through the unpleasant but irresistible exercise of summing up my career in physics.  By this age, or another few years, the most creative achievements are finished and visible.  You’ve either got the stuff and used it or you haven’t. . .

Why do scientists peak sooner than most other professionals?  No one knows for sure.  I suspect it has something to do with the single focus and detachment of the subject.  A handiness for visualizing in six dimensions or for abstracting the motion of a pendulum favors a nimble mind but apparently has little to do with anything else.  In contrast, the arts and humanities require experience with life, experience that accumulates and deepens with age.  In science, you’re ultimately trying to connect with the clean logic of mathematics and the physical world; in the humanities, with people.  Even within science itself, a telling trend is evident.  Progressing from the more pure and self-contained of sciences to the less tidy, the seminal contributions spring forth later and later in life.  The average age of election to England’s Royal Society is lowest in mathematics.  In physics, the average age at which Nobel Prize winners do their prize-winning [usually for work that began in their twenties] is thirty-six; in chemistry it is thirty-nine, and so on. . .

. . . I hold no illusions about my own achievements in science, but I’ve had my moments, and I know what it feels like to unravel a mystery no one has understood before, sitting alone at my desk with only pencil and paper and wondering how it happened.  That magic cannot be replaced. . .

– Alan Lightman, Dance for Two

The short span of a physicist’s productive career has always fascinated me. What is the reason for its brevity?  I think that Lightman touches upon an answer to this question.  At the heart of physics is a yearning to understand, to explore the unknown,  to discover.  In this circumstance, the value of youth is that it is less clouded by experience.  Youth lacks the prejudices and preconceptions that must of necessity accumulate as one ages.  In a discipline where groundbreaking solutions often defy everything we thought we knew about the world, the fresh perspective and exuberance that often go along with youth are invaluable.  Something that Lightman doesn’t mention is the vehement criticism the older physicists of Einstein’s time directed at his theories of relativity.  A large part of the physics community dismissed his theories as nonsense.

The older we get, the more we must try to fit things into a framework for life and for reality that we’ve developed over time, whereas in our youth we’re still in the process of creating that framework.  In general, that our framework becomes more rigid as we age is not a bad thing.  In many cases–perhaps even most cases–that framework survives because it works.  It is the product of a lifetime of taking in and processing an overwhelming load of experiences.  In short, it is the result of years of trial and error.  This may be an oversimplification, but there is a grain of truth to it.

Oftentimes the youth of a culture are the primary catalyst for change, while the older generations are a check against that change.  Each serves an important purpose.  On the one hand, the young infuse a society with adaptability, while the old serve as a break against excessively radical change.

My greatest fear in aging is not that I’ll lose my athleticism or my youthful appearance.  Rather, I fear that I might forget what it’s like to experience something for the first time.  For every experience that I have–both good and bad–the realization rests in my mind that I’ll never again repeat that experience.  I’ll never again know with total fidelity how it made me feel: how it made my heart race, or my adrenaline flow. . . or how it brought me to tears of joy or tears of sorrow.  I fear losing the ability to see things in the world that don’t fit my framework, my paradigm.  I fear losing novelty, of living without the sense of awe and childlike wonder at this world that make life worth living.  Perhaps the greatest challenge in aging is balancing the fruits and insights of experience with the chaos and novelty of youth–of becoming wiser, but not at the expense of our openness to new things.

*I don’t know about that story I wrote in my last post.  I was trying to capture that feeling of experiencing something (the ocean) for the first time, and in particular doing so with someone for whom the experience is not new.  Except that in the story, the experience of seeing the ocean is new for both the father and the son for different reasons.  For the son, the ocean is new because he has never seen it.  For the father, the novelty lies in seeing the ocean for the first time WITH his son, sharing it with him, and allowing him to interpret it as he likes, as a child might.  I kind of rushed it yesterday, even though it’s something I’ve thought about writing for a while.  Don’t know if it worked!  I’ll probably post more fiction here and there for fun… I think?

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About atomsofthought
Teacher. Traveler. Writer. Reader.

8 Responses to Is Age the Enemy of Ideas? Age vs. Youth, Wisdom vs. Naiveté

  1. anda says:

    I think a lot of young and old people, in our culture anyway, aim to define themselves as soon as possible and then wear that definition like a life jacket. I also think that people don’t need to have a child to see the world anew; they simply can’t conceive of doing so by themselves. I’m 63 and I know that there is much for me to unlearn now and a new reality to discover as I have to let go of physical attachments. But, for me, it’s because I don’t have much of the “safety net” of money and family, so the choice is to grow more bitter or (for me) to seek “enlightenment” that is beyond any age. Buddhism works for me.

    • I think you’re right about the pressure our culture places on people to define themselves (or be defined… it’s hard to say which is happening) and “wear that definition like a life jacket” (which may in reality be a straightjacket). You put it really well. Also, this notion of young and old, naive and wise, is pretty malleable. Culture can value one over the other in different circumstances and different eras. I don’t know that in our hunter-gatherer days we thought the young had all the good ideas and the “old” were necessarily behind the times, rigid in their thinking, and maybe obsolete. I don’t know what we thought, of course, but the young and old surely weren’t cast in the same light then as now. The notion that we have to say one group is better than the other seems like nonsense to me, but I feel like our culture blares a message that elevates youth and brand-spanking-newness over almost everything. What I like about Buddhism is that I think it helps reveal the futility of a lot of these distinctions and our obsession with categorizing things to the point of irreducibility. We expend a lot of energy on divvying up the world when maybe it would be OK to calm down 🙂 Anyway, I’m with you. I like to think that enlightenment need not be tied to one’s age.

      If I were writing this post today, instead of seven years ago, I would probably say that I don’t accept the either/or premise of the question. But that’s a perspective that came with seven more years of life that mattered. Which is to say that I’m not who I was seven years ago and that the younger me couldn’t easily have written something other than what he wrote.

  2. A refreshing realization as one ages is that a 30 year old doesn’t care so much about what a 20 year old did, a 40 year year old even less, and so on and so on. I’ve found all the things I was “worried about changing” as I got older, though some of those things have occurred, I don’t mind.

    I like the contrasting look at science v. art in terms of capacity to develop an exceptional result. Well done!

    • Thank you, Elizabeth! I think you just summed it up for me. The older we get the less we care about things we did or that happened to us in the past and that we can’t change. Perspective, perspective, perspective! And then the challenge becomes somehow sharing the lessons of aging with people who have not lived as long as you have. Grappling with that is part of my job. Sometimes it drives me nuts, because it turns out that the young (teenagers especially) don’t trust some of what thirty-year-olds have to say! Do you think that as we age we get better at moving on? I know my grandfather would say yes to that question.

  3. I find that taking up a new hobby every so many years helps with this concern, not that I necessarily do that on purpose, but it sort of works out that way. There’s always more to learn and to do. Perhaps an attitude of openness to new things is also good in this regard.

    • I think you’re right. The happiest people I know are the ones who acquired hobbies as they got older. It seems like they achieve a balance between sustaining habits from when they were young and adding new things as they age, so that they combine the comfort of old routines with the joy of learning new things.

  4. Amy says:

    I thought about writing my growing-old journey when I was just stepping into the “middle age”, the good and the bad, am still in the thinking stage.

    One of the noticeable changes of growing old for me is that I don’t spend time to fantasize things and people, as I did. I recall I used to spend endless time and my good energy to worry about things that did not exist. When I said, “I don’t care.” was because I was mad (most of the time mad at myself.) Also, I don’t feel that I need to prove to others any more. Now, I just want to prove to myself.

    That’s probably why older people can feel the inner peacefulness. Thus, I’m able to appreciate the beauty of the nature and be generous to people’s traits more and better. For that I’m happy to grow older. I sensed that your article is not about being old, but being young; it did prompt me to think… Thank you for the post!

    • I think you hit it on the head: when I wrote this I was 23. I think I was writing about being young and what aging meant to me at that time. Thank you for the comment!

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