The fountain of youth

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Caravaggio, “Saint Jerome writing” (1605)

Despite its stresses, science seems to provide an elixir for extended youth.

It’s no secret that science is a high-stress existence. The training period doesn’t end until you’re in your mid-30s, and you quite possibly won’t get a permanent position until you’re in your 40s. Conducting research is an emotional rollercoaster with more troughs than peaks (troughs that can sometimes last for a year or more), and often characterised by chronic and intense feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. Publishing research means running an intellectual gauntlet of your peers in which a thick skin is about the only defence against depression and insanity triggered by the ferocious criticism meted out by anonymous judges. You have to learn to accept that discovery can’t be legislated, and that even the fruits of a successful career can be spoiled in an instant by a new finding. It’s a hard, Darwinian system where pariah status or weakness of any kind can signal a slow and often painful decline.

And yet, for all these manifold disadvantages and hair-loss triggers, there’s one paradoxical correlate: many scientists are extraordinarily youthful, not necessarily in appearance, but very often in demeanour. Why?

Partly, it comes from being surrounded by young people – unlike Aldous Huxley’s fifth Earl of Gonister (“After many a summer”), there’s no need for a diet of fish guts, or vampiric injections of blood, virginal or otherwise – the company is enough. The scientific workforce is a procession of people in their early 20s, almost all of whom move on after 3-5 years and who are replaced by younger versions, and the effect of being surrounded by unsullied enthusiasm and idealism is bound to be positive. But that’s not the whole answer – after all, school teachers are surrounded their whole careers by children and teenagers yet the effect there seems one of accelerated rather than delayed ageing.

Oscar Wilde shrewdly opined that “To get back one’s youth, one has merely to repeat one’s follies”, and it’s true that the embarrassment that comes from making mistakes provides a swift transport back to the discomfiture of youth. Youth too is characterised by struggle – against one’s elders, against their expectations, against the system. But those struggles are perhaps not the exclusive preserve of biological youth.

Scientists’ almost lifelong struggles are thus those same ones of youth – a search for purpose, a search for meaning, a search for recognition, a search for a permanent position. The path is marked primarily by mistakes and missteps, each one a Wildean pill of rejuvenation, and none of them easy lessons. It’s quite likely to be more than 20 years after graduation before scientists finally get tenure, but the journey may – like travelling close to speed of light – have kept them paradoxically young despite their travails. The protracted struggle induces a kind of intellectual neoteny that arrests the ageing process.

Conversely, those scientists who drift into the geriatric realms of administration or university politics are the most prone to sudden ageing, being suddenly surrounded by grey thoughts and quavering pedanticism. Being cut off from youthful company and suddenly focused on more prosaic conflicts (Sayre, and others, have noted that “Academic politics are the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low”) will swiftly begin to leach away that well-kept vitality.

It’s why, for all its stresses, group leaders invariably look back on the postdoctoral period as some kind of lost golden age before administrative duties and fund-raising/grant-writing began consuming greater and greater chunks of their time. Because they sense that it’s not just time that they began to lose, but youth as well.

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