Squeezed at both ends
It’s been a fairly ordinary couple of weeks. Astronomers discovered seven new planets. Baseball changed the intentional walk rule. And the human capacity for stretching our limits was proved again— by a seven-year-old boy and a 105- year-old man.
The seven-year-old boy goes by the name of Romanieo Golphin Jr. He is home schooled by his parents, who made a decision to give their child an advanced education early in life in the belief that young children have a much greater capacity for absorbing information than conventional wisdom suggests. He is good at music, and knows his way around an art gallery, but his great passion is science. He likes science, he says, because he gets to use big words like “cyclohexanecarboxylic acid,” which, he claims, are “not a mouthful for me.” He attends university lectures and was recently invited to visit the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland to enhance his knowledge of physics.
Some have called him a “genius” who “could be the next Einstein.” One physicist said he has “a mind that is built to solve problems.” A chemist said “his memory is impressive and he appears to have developed some of his own methods to absorb and retain information.” Of course, he is also still a child at heart, and admits to liking colouring books, his iPad and his scooter.
The 105-year-old is a French amateur cyclist by the name of Robert Marchand, who has just set the record in one-hour cycling for persons 105 years and older. He managed 22.5 kilometres. Of course, he could have managed just one kilometre and might still have set the record, since he is the only person ever to have attempted it in his age bracket. He is mildly disappointed in his record-setting time, having covered 24.25 kilometres when he was five years younger, and vows to do better.
Marchand had been cycling for recreation when he met a professor of exercise science who thought that periods of intense exercise mixed with lighter exercise could enhance the body’s capacity to use oxygen. Although he was not a regular exerciser during his working life, Marchand tested above average in common fitness indices, adopted the regime and the rest is history. He attributes his long life to his optimistic and sociable temperament, as well as a diet consisting of yogurt, soup, cheese, chicken and a daily dose of red wine.
Those two examples represent pretty impressive achievements; I feel squeezed at both ends. They offer you some faith in the unrealized power of the human mind and body. Who knows, maybe a couple of generations from now, it will be commonplace for sevenyear- olds to be university professors and for 105-yearolds to win Olympic medals. (That doesn’t mean I subscribe to the view that we are necessarily evolving towards something more perfect. Take the American presidency as the easiest example: it’s hard to plot an upward course from George Washington to the current incumbent whose name need not be written.)
These achievements remind us rather brutally that we tend to coast through life with our engines running at less than full capacity. There are two ways to react to it, it seems to me. The first is to learn to accept our own relative mediocrity—which might in itself be the hardest challenge we ever face. Looking back on my own lifetime of personal successes—topped by solving the daily Sudoku puzzle for a straight week, and carving a couple of half-decent Halloween pumpkins over the years—makes me feel pretty small beside the precocious pair. Still, a lot of people have to make up the statistical middle in order for a few others to stand out; it’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
The second is to accept, humbly, that we need some sort of kick in the pants to push us to operate with more intensity, because we know we are capable of it. That means setting myself some personal improvement targets. And that means work. Perhaps I can start by learning a few more scientific terms. What was that one again— “cyclohexanecarboxylic acid”? Or maybe I could try the cyclist’s diet—starting, of course, with that daily glass of red wine. After all, I won’t be 105 for many years yet.