Ages and Ages
How old? The answer to that question is usually expected to be in terms of years – that is, of Earth journeys around the sun. We owe that idea to a Polish monk named Copernicus (1473-1543 AD). But even before Copernicus, in those good old days when the sun still went around the earth, the time it took was just the same.
And it is by that quaint concept that we still measure time – and distance – by how far in space light travels in an Earth-year, giving us the “unit” of a light-year. That makes it possible for us to conceive the inconceivable. The speed of light was first measured in 1676 by a Danish Astronomer named Ole Roemer. It is currently calculated at 186,282 miles per second. So, to think of something as being “so many light-years” away – even if it is only one or two light-years – is, in terms of our own comprehension, almost an exercise in futility. But what it does do for us is enable us to compare distances with each other. So, even though the nearest stars are still impossibly far away, we can say how much farther some are than others. This, of course, is important to astronomers – but I’m not sure how much it matters to anyone else.
Coming back to earth and earth-years, I have always felt that important qualifications, like a driver’s license, or the right to vote, or even admission to a college, should not necessarily depend on a person’s calendar age. Upper and lower age limits, imposed arbitrarily, often by legislatures, do not take into account anyone’s particular abilities and capacity for sound judgment. Shouldn’t there be validated tests, such as the ones people already have to pass in order to become a hairdresser or masseuse?
Ironically, some of our most important social roles require no testing at all. One is being a parent; another is running for office.
But it is equally as unfair to be declared too old for something as it is to be thought too young. The human body does wear out, but in different parts, at vastly different rates. Mental abilities, particularly, can remain fully functional when many of the physical ones have greatly diminished in capacity. That would seem, at least partly, to explain why many political leaders are able to hold on to power long after they have reached what in other spheres would be considered “old age.”
William Ewart Gladstone, who served four times as the British Prime Minister, finished his last term in 1894, when he was 84 years old.
And at the other end, of course, we have child prodigies, who, in various fields, including music and mathematics, have astonished experts by their very youthful achievements. Such early eminence can make the rest of us, regardless of our accomplishments, feel overshadowed. As Tom Lehrer once reflected at the height of his own career as a performer: “It is a sobering thought that, when Mozart was my age, he had been dead for two years.”
But, when it comes to dividing time into meaningful segments, historians and geologists have their particular systems of “Ages.” Technologically they have given us the Stone Age (presumably preceded by the Age of Wood, which we never hear much about). This was followed by the Bronze Age, based on the discovery that copper and tin could be combined into a metal much harder than either of them was separately. Then the big discovery of how to smelt iron ore gave us the Iron Age.
Then there are, or have been, what we might call Intellectual Ages – with a big leap between the Dark Ages (which weren’t really so dark) and the Age of Enlightenment (which wasn’t really that enlightened). And we mustn’t forget those pseudo-imaginary periods like the Golden Age – a concept of past paradises, generalized in literature as “halcyon days” (even though the original Greek meaning of halcyon was nothing more idyllic than a species of bird – the Kingfisher). And one may still come across references to the “Age of Miracles” – but usually with a negative implication, as in “The Age of Miracles is past.” But in that case, what about our own age, which, at least technologically speaking, seems so far to have been a constant parade of new miracles?
Human nature, however, seems to have always been miracle-resistant. People don’t change as much as most of us would like them to. For that, we must wait hopefully for some future age.