What better way to compare key stages in the evolution of a single human lifetime than with the strange life of the atom. The radioisotope of uranium-238 has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years, the current age of the Earth. Put in laymen’s terms, half-life refers to the amount of time taken for half the atoms contained within that radioactive material to decay (capture and lose their subatomic particles, and the likes) and through that process transform into some other element. Uranium-238 into lead-206, you and me into a likeness of our former selves. We are the same but not. A brass rubbing of our younger selves. Like the isotopic decay of a uranium atom, in the course of a whole life we too reach cardinal points which I suppose could be called a half-life. In decaying, we gain and we lose. Most we carry forth but some details are left in the impression made by the rubbing.
To emphasize the quirkiness of the half-life, take the whole life of the woman who would go down as the first to win a Nobel Prize. Marie Curie died discovering it, never living long enough to see half the atoms in radium-226 decay into radon gas over a period of 1600 years. To put chemistry on a scale of civilisation we can all appreciate, a half-life of 1,600 years is the equivalent age of Islam. The life of the prophet Mohammed unto the present day, the life of the prophet-metal radium unto the gas radon.
Marie Curie did some of her most exciting research on radioactive decay half way to a death ascribed to over-exposure to radioactive decay, aged 71. That gave the Warsaw-born scientist, in one sense, a half–life of about 35 years, for it was in those middle years that she hit a key stage in her own intellectual development. It was then she made breakthroughs that would have ramifications on both herself and the wider world. Those cardinal points we talked of were reached on the trajectory of Curie’s life in a chronology of major life and death events clearly divisible by two: 35 years of age and the year of her death, aged 71. This point needs elucidating.
I decayed into being 44 last week, affording me a half-life of 22 years since I embarked on the first of many physical (not to mention metaphysical) journeys that have come to characterise my life hitherto. All have been life-changing and atom-smashing in their own right, yet still this first was a paradigm-shift in the manner in which I started looking into the interior and onto the exterior world. In the time-space of 22 years I have undergone fundamental atomic change. Half of me has turned into something else elemental, I’m damned sure of it. What that element is and in what form – gas, liquid or solid – it takes is something yet undefined. Notwithstanding the elemental decay and reform that a human life takes between its halfway stage and now, it pays not to forget that for all the radioactive decay that time gives to human life, halfway to total change signifies that the other half of what we once were still remains.
I remember being that young man, a stable isotope of 22 years old, with the whole world at his feet. A road trip across the continental United States – destination San Francisco – had been on the cards since the second year of undergrad. Doing it had become the king of obsessions among a realm of princelings. Wearing flowers in one’s hair was optional when dressing for the big trip-cum-pilgrimage, but wearing a badge of free thought and experimentalism was mandatory. In the year that Rwanda and Bosnia were being ethnically cleansed, driving from DC to San Francisco was a spiritual cleansing, a means to salvage precious hippie cargo from the wreckage of anti-capitalism libertarianism. And that 3,500-mile road trip across a dozen states to California was the least that could be done on that salvage mission.
While the old reminisced about their lost youth and the remorseful lamented the opportunities squandered when age was still on their side, we lucky few, who were anaemic enough to want enlightening and curious enough to override the instinct to disappear in plain sight of a world numbingly familiar, grabbed the proverbial bull by the horns and rode the fucker past the Pennsylvania turnpike and into the great wide open. Crossing the great divide to edge closer to uniting oneself was a feat of natural engineering. To be able to make our own minor contribution to the mythologizing of the West was like engraving your own name on Arlington Cemetery wall to join the ever-expanding pantheon of American heroes by virtue of simply being there to retrace the footsteps of Lewis & Clark. And so we wrote our glorious epitaphs before we had even learned to live.
Now 44 I am hostage to the desert half a world and three decades away, decades in which the substance of things, even the great God Zeitgeist himself, has transformed utterly (and frankly not for the betterment of what it is to be sentient and self-aware). So far from the hippiedom yet so near to being able to afford the back-to-nature dream of the Sixties, with a 21-century spin, I look around and out ahead. The next time i can take a chronological leap by a multiple of two, fate-permitting I will be 88 and frail growing frailer.
As I take my dying breath the year will be 2060. The Earth is busted flush. The thermostat gone haywire, the half-life of all wild things has brought biodiversity to a point where half of all things have decayed and disappeared forever due in no small part to the destructive path left by man. Our once beautiful Earth is neurotically trying to cool itself with ocean-bearing storms of such magnitude that half the coastlines of the world have been wholesale abandoned. The interior too has turned infertile from the nutrient-depleting process of a failed global agriculture where not even a world governing oligarchy run by the board of Monsanto can succeed in feeding a human population consisting of more mouths than spoonfuls to feed them. Remaining populations subsist on semi-coastal strip at the high latitudes between 50-100 kms inland. Human population has gone into irreversible decline. Boom populations (Bangladesh for one) have gone boom in an implosion. Negative growth populations like Denmark weather the weather change that bit better.
Hardest hit is the Persian Gulf. So long the chief benefactor of the economic system that landed us in this terrible morass in the first place, the region is now practically uninhabitable. What were unbearably hot midsummer days in 2016 are by 2060 normal winter’s day. Only a few super-wealthy elites from families who got the best from oil, who saw the writing on the wall while all others had their faces turned to Mecca and car showrooms, survive in subterranean networks and domed city-states. Thermally-adapted aircraft whisk them off to cooler climes in northern Europe when the post-catastrophe sheikhs and sheikhas are not busy lording and ladying it over the captives of their desert city-states. Now all that exists outside the dome are a few hardy brigands, sandmen from Tatooine, and their genetically freakish camels that can walk on burning coals. Only the suicidal exit the airtight gates of the Dubai city-state. Those, and the old who are expected to end it gracefully so that others may occupy their bed space. Naturally, realty is even more premium sought after than it is in 2016.
In 2016 the media was ablaze with stories of ancient city-settlements lost and found. Thanks to aerial laser mapping, archaeologists revealed buried platforms belonging to the Nabateans of Petra. Raised mounds and embankments, barely visible under a mop of vegetation, hinted at a Khmer super-city adjoining the ruins of Angkor. They flourished and then were no more. Unlike the postmodern city-state on the firing line of global environmental catastrophe it helped to foment, at least the lost and found ruins submerged under the sands of Petra lasted a good few hundred years.
Who would have thought it would be so short-lived? In this early 21st century civilisation built on the riches of 20th century oil, what now from my 18th floor window seems tranquil and permanent has been wholesale abandoned by 2060. The grid pattern of the coastal city has been reduced to geometric outlines visible from the air that draw a faint outline over a lifeless and skeletal coastline. Even the toughest, savviest survivalist, the stray dog, no longer barks his woes in the night. For hundreds, even thousands, of square miles all that remains of what once was are these domes. They are what used to be the caravansarais of yore, except only the wealthiest traders are now welcomed in. A vast acrylic parasol glimmering from far, distant dunes, Dubai is one such haven of life. Abu Dhabi another. Life holds on because the closed climate system is powered by huge air-conditioned units that, were they to fail, would result in the slow cooking of every last inhabitant, as the interior of the dome succumbs to an equalizing of temperature with that of the outside. There is no escaping the unremitting sun, nor the dust that coats the exterior, for which the criminal class pay with their condemned lives by facing the outside to dust and hose the acrylic clean.
22-44-88. The years multiply. The physical decay that started aged 22 will continue. Life experience will transform us all, into what state only slow and inexorable decay will decide. Still, a half-life is better than no life at all.