I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. -Henry David Thoreau
In 1888, the NY Times reported that, “For the first time in many years people yesterday crossed the East River on the ice” which filled the river “from Wall Street to the bridge on the New York side and from Fulton Street to Hamilton Avenue on the Brooklyn side. The ice was fully six inches thick and covered with two inches of hard snow” and “was solid from shore to shore.” That day, New Yorkers tested the strength of the ice and “paid a boy his two-cent fee for the use of his ladder” to get on the ice on the Brooklyn side… when they reached Manhattan, they found a young employee of the fish market with a thriving side business, charging 5 cents to use the ladder he secured to help people up to land.
At least it’s not this cold.
by Robert Krulwich
We wax, we wane. It’s the dance of life.
Every living thing is a pulse. We quicken, then we fade. There is a deep beauty in this, but deeper down, inside every plant, every leaf, inside every living thing (us included) sits a secret.
Below the pulse, which you see here, elegantly captured by Shanghai photographer/designer Yunfan Tan, is a life/death cycle, a pattern that shows up in the teeniest of plants, (phytoplankton, algae, moss), also in the bigger plants, (shrubs, bushes, little trees) — and even in the biggest, the needle bearing giant sequoias.
Everything alive will eventually die, we know that, but now we can read the pattern and see death coming. We have recently learned its logic, which “You can put into mathematics,” says physicist Geoffrey West. It shows up with “extraordinary regularity,” not just in plants, but in all animals, from slugs to giraffes. Death, it seems, is intimately related to size.
Life is short for small creatures, longer in big ones. So algae die sooner than oak trees; elephants live longer than mayflies, but you know that. Here’s the surprise: There is a mathematical formula which says if you tell me how big something is, I can tell you — with some variation, but not a lot — how long it will live. This doesn’t apply to individuals, only to groups, to species. The formula is a simple quarter-power exercise: You take the mass of a plant or an animal, and its metabolic rate is equal to its mass taken to the three-fourths power. I’ll explain how this works down below, but the point is, this rule seems to govern all life.
A 2007 paper checked 700 different kinds of plants, and almost every time they applied the formula, it correctly predicted lifespan. “This is universal. It cuts across the design of organisms,” West says. “It applies to me, all mammals, and the trees sitting out there, even though we’re completely different designs.”
It’s hard to believe that creatures as different as jellyfish and cheetahs, daisies and bats, are governed by the same mathematical logic, but size seems to predict lifespan. The formula seems to be nature’s way to preserve larger creatures who need time to grow and prosper, and it not only operates in all living things, but even in the cells of living things. It tells animals for example, that there’s a universal limit to life, that though they come in different sizes, they have roughly a billion and a half heart beats; elephant hearts beat slowly, hummingbird hearts beat fast, but when your count is up, you are over. Plants pulse as well, moving nourishment through their veins. They obey the same commands of scale, and when the formula says “you’re done,” amazingly, the buttercup and the redwood tree obey. Why a specific mathematical formula should govern all of us, I don’t completely understand, but when the math says, “it’s time,” off we go …
We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths — that all of us are created equal — is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.
Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright. With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.
-President Barack Obama // The 57th Presidential Inauguration
Years ago, Charlie, a highly respected orthopedist and a mentor of mine, found a lump in his stomach. He had a surgeon explore the area, and the diagnosis was pancreatic cancer. This surgeon was one of the best in the country. He had even invented a new procedure for this exact cancer that could triple a patient’s five-year-survival odds—from 5 percent to 15 percent—albeit with a poor quality of life. Charlie was uninterested. He went home the next day, closed his practice, and never set foot in a hospital again. He focused on spending time with family and feeling as good as possible. Several months later, he died at home. He got no chemotherapy, radiation, or surgical treatment. Medicare didn’t spend much on him.
It’s not a frequent topic of discussion, but doctors die, too. And they don’t die like the rest of us. What’s unusual about them is not how much treatment they get compared to most Americans, but how little. For all the time they spend fending off the deaths of others, they tend to be fairly serene when faced with death themselves. They know exactly what is going to happen, they know the choices, and they generally have access to any sort of medical care they could want. But they go gently.