I’ve had troubles with my blood pressure ever since I was a teenager. I also have fainting episodes. One time I infamously passed out on a plane as it was approaching the runway. The pilot had to cancel take-off and call an ambulance. Paramedics carried me off the plane, wheeled me away, and then kept me in the hospital for a week. While noteworthy for the trouble I had getting hold of a bag that traveled without me, this was neither the first nor the last time my blood pressure suddenly gave in for no particular reason. I’ve been on the receiving end of epinephrine shots more than once.
Besides being a constant reminder that life is short, having a close relative who died young from heart failure has also added a high-risk stamp to my medical documents. This blessed me with countless extra exams thanks to which I now know exactly that some of my heart valves don’t properly close and the right chambers are enlarged. I also have a heart arrhythmia.
My doctors say I’m healthy, which really means they don’t know what’s wrong with me. Maybe I just have a fickle vagus nerve that pulls the plug every once in a while. Whatever the cause of my indisposition, I’ve spent most of my life in the awareness that I may not wake up tomorrow.
Today I woke up to find I reached the end of my subconscious life-expectation. In two weeks I’ll turn 42. I have checked off almost all boxes on my to-do list for life. Plant a tree, have a child, write a book. The only unchecked item is visiting New Zealand. But besides this, folks, I feel like I’m done here.
And what the heck do I do now with the rest of my life?
I didn’t really think about this until a few people asked what I plan on doing now that my book has been published. My current contract will run out next year, and then what? Will I write another book? Apply for another grant? Do something entirely different? To which my answer was, I have no idea. Ask me anything about quantum gravity and I may have a smarter reply.
I worry about the future, of course, constantly. Oh yes, I am a great worrier. But the future I worry about is not mine, it’s that of mankind. I’m just a blip in the symphony, a wheel in the machinery, a node in a giant information-processing network. Science, to me, is our collective attempt to accurately understand the laws of nature. It’s not about me, it’s not about you, it’s about us; it’s about whether the human race will last or whether we’re just too dumb to figure out how the world works.
Some days I am optimistic, but today I fear we are too dumb. Interactions of humans in large groups have consequences that we do not intuitively grasp, a failure that underlies not only twitter witch-hunts and viral fake news, but is also the reason why science works so inefficiently. I’m not sure we can fix this. Scientists have known for decades that the pressure to work on topics that produce results quickly and that are well-cited supports the widespread use of bad methodologies. But they do nothing about it except for the occasional halfhearted complaint.
Unsurprisingly, taxpayers who are financing research-bubbles with zero return on investment have taken cue. Some of them conclude, not entirely incorrectly, that much of the scientific enterprise is corrupt and conclusions cannot be trusted. If we carry on like this, science skeptics are bound to become more numerous. And that’s how it will end, the great human civilization: Not with a bang and not with a whimper, but with everyone yelling at each other that someone else was responsible to do something about it.
And if not even scientists can learn that social feedback influences their decisions, how can we expect the same of people who have not been trained to objectively evaluate evidence? Most scientists still believe their enterprise is governed by an invisible hand that will miraculously set things right should they go astray. They believe science self-corrects. Hahaha. It does not, of course. Someone, somewhere, has to actually do the correcting. Someone has to stand up and say: “This isn’t good science. We shouldn’t do this. Stop it.” Hence my book.
I used to think old people must hate all younger people because who wouldn’t rather be young. Now that I’ve reached a certain age myself I find the opposite is true. Not only am I relieved that my hyperactive brain is slowing down, making it much easier for me to focus on one thing at a time. I also love young people. They give me hope, hope that I lost in my own generation. Kids, I know you inherit a mess. I am sorry. Now hand me the wine.
But getting older also has an awkward side, which is that younger people ask me for advice. Worse, I get invited to speak about my experience as a woman in science. I am supposed to be a role model now, you see, I am supposed to encourage young women to follow my footsteps. If only I had something encouraging to say; if only those footsteps would lead elsewhere than nowhere. I decline these invitations. My advice, ladies, is to find your own way. And keep in mind, life is short.
Today’s advice to myself is to come up with an idea how I’ll make a living next year. But after two weeks of travel, 4 lectures and 2 interviews, with a paper and an essay and two blogposts squeezed in between, I am only tired. I have also quite possibly had a glass of wine too much.
Maybe I’ll make a plan tomorrow, first thing when I wake up. If I wake up.