Mor­bid about mor­tal­ity

Our lives may seem like in­con­se­quen­tial sparks in the great scheme of the universe – un­til we con­sider that mayflies live for only five min­utes.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - Ja­son God­frey Ja­son God­frey can be seen host­ing The LINK on Life In­spired (Astro B.yond Ch 728).

oN cer­tain sleep­less nights, I’ll lay awake star­ing at the ceil­ing as my mind pon­ders the seem­ing in­finite­ness of the universe con­trasted with my own mor­tal­ity. Namely, I stay up think­ing about how the universe has been here long, long be­fore me and will be here long, long af­ter me. Think­ing about this doesn’t re­ally help me sleep.

We all have th­ese nights. And for some rea­son, our minds re­treat – when the dis­trac­tions of work, re­la­tion­ships, and get­ting a high score on Candy Crush fade away – to the dis­turb­ing no­tion that all of us are fi­nite and small in a vast universe that we barely un­der­stand and will surely never see more than an in­fin­i­tes­i­mal part of. This is the re­al­ity of our ex­is­tence.

Mis­ery loves com­pany or rather the mis­ery of oth­ers can some­times serve to make one feel bet­ter, and so I turned to the In­ter­net to find species that are even more fi­nite than hu­man be­ings. And no, dogs and cats won’t do, be­cause they’re our friends and we don’t want to achieve joy at the mis­ery of friends.

Thus I in­tro­duce the mayfly. Yes, mayflies have ex­tremely short life­spans: last­ing up to five days and as quick as five min­utes for cer­tain species.

Yes, if I have to stay up at night mis­er­ably con­tem­plat­ing my own mor­tal­ity, at least I know I have been alive for thou­sands of gen­er­a­tions of mayflies. Rel­a­tiv­ity is one way to achieve longevity. For a mayfly life, I’m as con­stant as a moun­tain.

Or at least as con­stant as a moun­tain when I’m sit­ting on the couch and play­ing video games.

Mov­ing on to mam­mals, mice have very short life­spans of around three years, which made me feel good, though not as good as what the mayflies made me feel. Then I read about the bow­head whale that can live up to 200 years old. This made me feel bad but also made me won­der: why?

Why did it seem that lit­tle things have short life­spans while big­ger things live longer? A mayfly com­ing and go­ing in five min­utes seems to make sense on some level, while the idea of an ele­phant liv­ing out its en­tire nat­u­ral life­span in five min­utes would prob­a­bly make for a good YouTube video.

Turns out that there is a the­ory that ev­ery or­gan­ism – as long as they can avoid be­ing hit by buses, shot by bul­lets, or sub­jected to the films of Ewe Boll – has a fi­nite num­ber of heart­beats that will ul­ti­mately limit it’s life­span.

Some stud­ies and ex­perts put this num­ber at one bil­lion heart­beats per life form. I don’t know how much stock I put into this the­ory but it is in­ter­est­ing to ex­plain why smaller an­i­mals have shorter life­spans than larger ones.

Hu­man hearts beat around 70 times a minute, the long liv­ing bow­head whale about 40 beats per minute, while a mouse’s heart thumps away like an in­vest­ment banker at the cen­tre of the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis at 500 beats per minute. That’s why mice fid­get and jolt their heads around like they’re ner­vous, their hearts are lit­er­ally beat­ing them­selves to death.

The Amer­i­can Heart As­so­ci­a­tion lists that the av­er­age hu­man heart is good for about 2.6 bil­lion beats be­fore it checks out and as a re­sult checks you out too.

At my cur­rent heart rate of 66 beats per minute, my heart will beat 95,040 times a day, 667,564 times a week, 2.8 mil­lion times a month, which leads me to a life ex­pectancy of 74.9 years! That doesn’t help me sleep, I was plan­ning on stick­ing around un­til at least 135.

Even low­er­ing my heart rate by a measly six beats per minute would in­crease my life ex­pectancy by eight years. I’m cur­rently think­ing about ways to keep my­self from get­ting overly ex­cited, stressed, or phys­i­cally ex­erted all of which raises my heart rate. I fig­ure I can live to 90 if I lock my­self in a closet tomorrow.

While think­ing about life in a closet, my mind in­ad­ver­tently turned back to the in­finite­ness of the universe. Ev­ery­thing in our phys­i­cal world that we think of as con­stant is chang­ing. The moun­tains, the rivers, and oceans that we take for granted will change too. Moun­tains are built over pe­ri­ods of mil­lions of years, the Grand Canyon was said to have been formed by the Colorado River weav­ing back and forth for 65 mil­lion years.

My high school ge­ol­ogy teacher once pointed to the long counter that spanned the front of the class and said, “if this counter rep­re­sents bil­lions of years of ge­o­log­i­cal time,” he then put his lit­tle fin­ger down on the end of the counter and con­tin­ued, “this is how long hu­mans have been around”.

Thanks, Mr Dud­del. Think­ing about what you told me 20 years ago keeps me up at night now. Be­cause in a universe that takes mil­lions of years to form, and bil­lions of years to reach its own mor­tal­ity, we are all mayflies.

does longevity de­pend on size? White mice have a life­span of only three years while bow­head whales can live up to 200 years.

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