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.
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.