Age is but a fever chill
that every physicist must fear.
He's better dead than living still
when once he's past his thirtieth year.
This bit of doggerel was penned by Paul Dirac, a much greater physicist than poet. He was a founder of quantum mechanics, winning the Nobel Prize for work he did at age 25. Einstein agreed with him when he said, "A person who has not made his greatest contribution to science before the age of thirty will never do so." For Einstein, this may not have been exactly true. His work on special relativity was published in 1905, his twenty-sixth year, but his general relativity work did not see the light of day until after 1911, his early thirties.
But history is replete with stories of prodigies both in the sciences and the arts. Mozart immediately comes to mind-leaving a great body of work behind when he died in his thirties. And there is Alexander the Great and Jesus. Among the remarkable poetic trio of Byron, Shelley, and Keats, the first two managed to make it into their thirties, but John Keats died at age 25.
Athletics, of course, is the best argument for it's good to be young. A.E. Houseman wrote sadly "To an Athlete Dying Young," but from the point of view of athletic achievement, it doesn't matter whether you die young or old because it's all downhill once you are an adult. True, we marvel at Dara Torres making the Olympic swimming team at age 41-she didn't medal-or at the octogenarian tri-athletes, but our marvel is at their great exceptionalism. What Samuel Johnson quite mysogenously said about women preachers-"A woman's preaching is like a dog walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all"-would, for many, apply not only to athleticism but for any kind of old-age achievement at all.
But Johnson himself was exceptional, railing against the American Revolution in a pamphlet he wrote at age 66, Taxation No Tyranny. And one of the revolutionaries he wanted to hang was Benjamin Franklin, who in his seventies was guiding the revolution so hateful to Johnson.
Athletics, physics, and math aside, there is at least anecdotal evidence of great scientific achievement later in life. Dean Keith Simonton, in Greatness: Who Makes History and Why (1994), points to notable examples of later-life achievement in biology and earth science. Darwin, whose two-hundredth birthday we just celebrated, published The Origin of Species at age 50. Lamarck's Natural History of the Invertebrates was published in his seventies. And Alexander von Humboldt-responsible for first proposing that the continents were once joined-published his magnum opus, Cosmos, at age 76. This work was an attempt by a 19th century scientist to unify all science-perhaps a precursor to Einstein's old-age attempt-considered a failure-at a unified field the
Leaving the academic realm, there is even greater evidence of achievement in late life. We have Colonel Sanders to thank for finger licking good chicken. He started KFC in his sixties. Anton Bruckner did not become a composer until his forties, and was working on his great Symphony No. 9 when he died at 72. But the true anti-Mozart, Elliot Carter, is receiving perhaps his greatest acclaim at age 100. The New York Times music critic wrote of his latest, centenarian work, Interventions, "lucidly textured, wonderfully inventive, even impish. This was the work of a living master in full command."
In writing, we have Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Little House on the Prairie series did not appear until her sixties. Henry Roth falls into both the prodigy and late bloomer categories. When he was only 28, he published Call it Sleep, which makes most of the great novels of the 20th century lists. But he abandoned writing and did not return to it until his seventies, not publishing the sequels to his first novel until he was approaching death at age 89-sixty years after his youthful achievement. Recently, there was Harry Bernstein who published his well-regarded first novel, The Dream, at 96. And there's humble me, who will be publishing his debut book at a more childlike 62. (More on that in my next post.)
Great achievement aside, I have to remind myself that the frail, confused elderly who are the daily-fare of my work in nursing homes present a distorted view of aging. We clinicians need to remind themselves that what they see in the consultation room is not all there is. That not all children are suicidal. That not all adults are psychotic. And that not all old people are incontinent.
There are close to 2 million residents in nursing homes, but living outside are more than 35 million of their peers over 65.
Out there is ninety-one-year-old Walter Cronkite sailing his yacht, Wyntje, Pete Singer still singing, sixty-eight-year-old Melvin Cate, bank robber. Nor should I forget my Aunt Estelle, born in the still-Czarist Ukraine, mugged in front of her Brooklyn home, and injured because she fought them off. She died pushing one hundred several years later.
The effects of aging on cognition, achievement and creativity is one of those complicated research thickets, but as we live longer expect not only extraordinary achievement late-life achievement but also ordinary late-life contentment.
Not everybody wants to be a mathematician.