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?