Do you really want to live to be a hundred?

“Yes, life IS precious but maybe you truly can have too much of a good thing…..”

So said commenter Eileen Williams, in response to my guest and fellow writer Joyce Mason’s article on the topic of longevity to which I am happy to be linking at the end of this article.

Ever since the Big Bang, which is the prevailing scientific theory thus far regarding how life originated in the universe, we have been confronted with the reality that creativity and destruction are woven together. Without that monumentally, unimaginably destructive Big Bang, the creative energies which ultimately produced the richly teeming life we have on planet Earth – and probably many other planets as yet undiscovered – would not have come to be.

Each tiny human, little energy flash in space/time, carries that dual spark of positive/negative, creative/destructive power. We have to learn to balance our creativity with our destructiveness – you could argue on the large scale that the whole of human history has been about that grapple. It is simply not realistic to think that we can have light without shadow at any level in our complex world, either at a personal or a collective level.

Every advance brings that duality. At this point in our history, humans from the post-Second World War Baby Boomer generation onwards are having increasingly to face a dilemma never faced before by human beings. It is this: amazing advances in public health and general medical care have enabled those of us who live in the West and increasingly in the East,  routinely to achieve life spans which were rare in previous centuries.

My grandparents almost all lived into their eighties. This was unusual for their generation. Now, people routinely live into their nineties. This is fine for many people who live to a healthy old age, then die suddenly. We all aspire to this. But this great advance carries a very dark shadow. An increasing reality, and one which is set to consume a huge proportion of the economic resources of  affluent countries, is that quality medical care now available for people in later life is prolonging many lives well beyond their ability to contribute to society, family life or their own happiness.


Duality: light and dark
Duality: light and dark

What do we do about this? It is an issue which we simply have to grapple with and resolve somehow. Shortly after finishing this article I will be heading for my local hospital to visit a dear old friend in her nineties, frail and ill, depressed and having lost entirely the spark which her freedom to get about had given her, allied to her own indomitable spirit, well into old age. She just wants to go. But medical care of high quality is helping to keep her alive.

Over the last few years I have heard some awful stories about the prolonging of lives which had, by any common sense measure, reached their natural end. A vivid but by no means uncommon example of this can be seen in the story of a friend’s grandmother in her late eighties who had a severe heart attack and would not have survived. But resuscitation techniques dragged her from the brink to endure a miserable, ill eighteen months before she eventually died.

I am horrified to think that I or my husband, in old age, could be hauled from the edge of dying to an existence in some miserable twilight until death eventually could not be staved off any more. We have living wills. But would the paramedics called to an emergency if one of us had a severe stroke, know that we do not want any intervention which would drag us back to a life of severe incapacity?

I think that in our materialist society the essence of what is a complex and multi-faceted issue is this: we are culturally afraid of death and do not know at this point how to face or manage it with compassion, wisdom, respect and common sense. We were better at coping with death hundreds of years ago than we are now. Religious faith is on the wane, secularism on the rise, and the tyranny of too much choice and too many options is increasingly holding us all to ransom.

Well, what are we going to do about it?

Dealing with end-of-life issues is very much a topical issue here in Scotland at present, with this month seeing a further presentation of an End of Life Bill to our Parliament by that gritty, courageous individualist and Independent Member of the Scottish Parliament, Margo MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease. She wants the right for herself and others to end their own lives with dignity and with the assistance of  the medical profession.

There is considerable opposition to the Bill right across the board, as can be seen from just one recent article:

But Margo, as she is affectionately known here in Scotland, has done us all a favour by triggering a nation-wide debate and discussion on the issue of what we do about end of life issues. Economically, socially, and personally, we have to find a better way of managing the issue of how we face death in general and individual’s deaths in particular. It is too costly at every level to keep sticking our collective heads in the sand. We are fortunate indeed in the UK to have a thriving Hospice movement which offers wonderful palliative care to people who have reached the last stages of their lives. But there is not enough of that type of care.

We cannot live forever. We all have to die sometime. So what are we going to do about this huge problem?

While you think about it, check out that fine writer and fellow Baby-Boomer Joyce Mason’s thoughtful piece

Do You Really Want to Live to be a Hundred?


1000 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2010
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page

Favourite Quote: from an interview with scientist Paul Davies in “Devout Sceptics”

” The older I get, the more I find that I am returning to those deep questions, and asking ‘Why?’ I don’t think it’s enough to shrug this question aside. My scientific colleagues will often say, ‘Scientists shouldn’t ask “why?’ questions’. Well, that response reminds me of my school days: ‘Sit down, Davies, and shut up!’ I’m afraid I’m not going to sit down, and I’m not going to shut up. I’m going to go on asking these ‘why?’ questions. We do want to know why the world is as it is. Why did it come to exist 13.7 billion years ago in a Big Bang? Why are the laws of electromagnetism and gravitation as they are? Why those laws? What are we doing here? And, in particular, how come we are able to understand the world? Why is it that we’re equipped with intellects that can unpick all this wonderful cosmic order and make sense of it? It’s truly astonishing.”(from a 2002 conversation)

The Big Why ?
The Big Why ?

from – (p57) – Devout Sceptics conversations on faith and doubt with Bel Mooney (2004) If you are preoccupied – as I always have been – with The Big Why?, and find it intriguing and stimulating to browse the musings of other people regarding how we got here, why we are here, and what is the point of it all, then the above book is definitely for you. Mooney’s edited transcripts from the popular BBC Radio 4 series, Devout Sceptics, feature well-known people as diverse as authors Phillip Pullman, Joanna Trollope and Jeanette Winterson, broadcasters Kate Adie and John Humphries, scientists James Lovelock and Paul Davies: 20 in all. These interviews will make you think. Do check this book out.

Review: an appreciation of the New Scientist magazine

“Entertain, or else….” headlines the Comment and analysis column in the 20/27 December 2008 issue of the New Scientist magazine. Here, Michael Brooks, a consultant for New Scientist and author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense asserts forcefully that scientists need to make their work more appealing and less boring if they don’t want funding to dry up.

In his hard-hitting article he quotes the great physicist Erwin Schrodinger addressing the scientific community: “Never lose sight of the role your particular subject has within the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life. If you cannot – in the long run – tell everyone what you have been doing, your doing is worthless.”

This challenging comment piece inspired me to write an appreciation of the New Scientist.

Last spring, whilst preparing mentally to transform from techno-dinosaur into cyber-babe via computer lessons to enable me to set up this website, I responded to a magazine insert promoting the New Scientist, taking out a year’s subscription. Normally immune to the blandishments of promotional leaflets, this uncharacteristic impulse has proved to be highly beneficial; my lifelong interest in science – purely as a lay person with no formal scientific education – has been very well stimulated during 2008 as a result.

In sum, I think that the New Scientist does an excellent job in telling us all what the scientific community has been up to, simultaneously weaving global, political, cultural and social issues into its information-giving, never losing sight of “ the great performance of the tragi-comedy of human life ”, as Schrodinger so eloquently put it.

I cannot pretend for a moment to read the magazine from cover to cover every week, sometimes only finding time to read the lead article in the Cover Story. But when, for example, that story is From big bang to big bounce (writer Anil Ananthaswamy, 13 December 2008 issue) and is summarised thus:

“What if our universe didn’t appear from nothing, but was recycled from one that went before?” …., going on fully to inform me about loop quantum cosmology, which predicts that the universe didn’t arise from nothing in a big bang, but “grew from the collapse of a pre-existing universe that bounced back from oblivion….” – this provides me with enough mind-boggling reflection to make the one-hour journey to my dentist, across the city on the number 40 bus, fly by in what feels like a nano-second.

Read the New Scientist !
Read the New Scientist !

The latest issue of this brilliant magazine now travels around with me in my backpack, thereby ensuring that any waiting becomes an educative opportunity. I’ve also taken to reading it over breakfast (nobody speaks much in our house before 11am), at times being unable to resist offering gems:
This is amazing! Did you know that a corroded lump of bronze, salvaged from an ancient shipwreck, has turned out to be nothing less than a computer used to plot the motion of heavenly bodies – possibly invented by Archimedes around 200 BC?” (Decoding the Antikythera by Jo Marchant, p36 New Scientist, 13th December )

The New Scientist is most accessibly and clearly laid out, with lots of arresting photography, clear illustrative diagrams and a healthy sprinkling of cartoons. Content is summarised on the very first print page, under these headings: (examples from 3 Jan 2009 Issue)
News – ‘Obama’s dream team prepares for business’
Technology –  ‘polymer bubbles target tumours’
Features – ‘Cover Story “Three Degrees of Contagion” Detox your life by harnessing the power of other people – even some you’ve never met’
Opinion –  ‘Comment and Analysis If more kids are to become scientists, fun and learning must be one and the same, says TV presenter Richard Hammond
RegularsLetters, Enigma (a baffling question set as a challenge to readers), Feedback, The Last Word, and Jobs.

This layout means that even if you don’t read everything, you find out in summary what the hot issues of the week are, thereby gaining an archive which can be looked up eg when a subject comes up in conversation and you think “I’m sure there was something about that in a recent New Scientist….”

The writing is lively, clear, often witty, generally first class. And there is always  – ALWAYS – in every issue something so totally mind-boggling that you go around all week telling everyone about it.
My recent personal favourite(can’t quite find which issue it was in, but I will!) concerned an American woman sitting quietly in an armchair at home when a small meteorite came crashing through the roof, scarring her thigh and narrowly missing killing her. It just so happened that her house was situated across the street from a club – whose promotional neon lighting featured a lightning bolt and a hurtling meteorite….

So – can you survive without a regular subscription to the New Scientist? If you subscribe to the ethos of this website, I think not !!

(this review is now referenced on the New Scientist’s wikipedia page)

800 words copyright Anne Whitaker 2008
Licensed under Creative Commons – for conditions see Home Page