Dizzy doubling of life-expectancy formula

01:54, Aug 30 2011

Three score years and ten had not so long ago been considered the natural life expectancy of a (European) human. I'm showing my age by knowing that this is an expression that means seventy years (a "score" being 20 years).

For me to have absorbed this piece of folklore suggests I might have bought into its expectation. Perhaps I did, when my grandparents seemed incredibly old to my five-year-old eyes but were, in fact, around 70 then. Dad, as his mother's last child, was born when his mother was 40, and I was given to understand that this was ancient in terms of giving birth. She lived to her early 90s. Now, the older I get, the younger 70 is. Equally, mortality as applied to me has much more reality the older I get.

When young I also heard; "Man hath but a short time to live. He cometh up and is cut down ..."

I pictured Man as like grass, coming up and being scythed down, maybe even while still coming up, still growing. It gave my youthful self the terrible realisation that death can come before any expected date. Is this why we constantly measure – how big, how long, how heavy, how far, how much, how fast, how hot, how cold ... ? Is it because it gives us some sense of connection to that life from which we will be inevitably cut down; we cannot fully understand life but we can at least know a lot about it, and know where we fit within it.

I came across a Health and Development record book for one of my children yesterday. Her newborn weight, length, head circumference were all carefully measured and recorded. Then in following pages came the record of regular updates to these facts across the next two years. There is also a chart where her statistics were recorded in relation to New Zealand children measured in 1973.

The chart shows head size, weight and length as shaded areas coloured yellow, bands of "normality" within which one hopes one's own child's vital measurements will fall. I gazed yesterday at her recordings, those dots I had so carefully placed, so reassuringly close to the mid-line of each area. The measuring never stops. We constantly ask what we can do and how well/fast we can do it. Are we better able/faster than others? is the embedded agenda. Ability and speed are the perennial concerns.


Ask yourself what you need to know about a computer you're thinking of buying – it will be about what it can do, and how fast it can do it.

Same with people. I remember the ritual of the IQ test conducted in mid-childhood with much pomp and grandeur. The classroom was hushed and vibrating with fear and hope as pencils were laid straight, and a booklet was placed in front of you, containing cunning questions that would take your intelligence measure. Could you answer them? Could you answer them right? Could you be quick about it?

When given the word, the front page was turned over, and you with your pencil now poised, came face to face with your own abilities and speed. The excruciating part was that never would you be informed of your result. This was considered an unwise revelation – too much knowledge for a young mind to handle well. Nevertheless, and without sophisticated measuring tools, we figured it out for ourselves. We divined the truth from our experience of the test: whether it had sent chills of fear or thrills of capability down our spine as we read each question; whether we had produced all answers, or only some or barely any; how quickly we had reached completion or how far from the finish we were when commanded to cease and place our pencils down.

Expert at reading our places in class, we knew who finished first or last. We compared answers. We interpreted subtle re-groupings made within the class soon after the test and knew what the groups signified and where we stood in those groups.

We found out about ourselves and others on the playgrounds and sports fields and in the art room. Who could draw, who could run fast, who was good at maths, who won the swimming races. We also knew who cheated, who lied, who bragged, who cried, who told tales.

Meanwhile, in the scientific world, more brilliant minds than ours want to ensure that our measure of days can become ever longer than three score years and 10. They grapple with life at the "nano" level of atoms and molecules, and are moving towards an ability to build robot molecules which will be sent into the body to heal disease.

"The idea is to have molecular robots build a structure or repair damaged tissues," said Milan NStojanovic, leader of a team of scientists from American universities who have invented nanoscale robotic "spiders", themselves made of DNA, which crawl about on DNA.

With the use of a technology known as DNA origami (after the Japanese art of folding paper) which folds structures of DNA to provide tracks for the nanospiders to follow, scientists will be able eventually to program the robots to follow instructions.

"You could imagine the spider carrying a drug and bonding to a two-dimensional surface like a cell membrane, finding the receptors and, depending on the local environment, triggering the activation of this drug," explains Hao Yan, one of the project's key researchers, on http://www.good.is/post/scientists-create-nanoscale-robot-spiders-from-dna-molecules/

We are assured of a time in the future when to be healthy at 100 will be possible. To be healthy even at 150: can you imagine?

If we're forever healthy, of what will we eventually die?

Man comes up and is cut down.

And Man comes up and goes on and on and on? It doesn't have the same ring to it somehow.

South Canterbury