Pointless birthdays

Did you know the Earth is weightless?

Yeah, I know: it sounds like I’ve been on the crazy pills again, and you’re probably saying “if you think that, mate, have a go at picking it up”. But it’s true! Weight is a measurement of the influence of gravity on an object, and because the main thing that causes gravity around here is Earth, it becomes impossible to weigh it.

But it does have a mass: 5,212,000,000,000,000 tons. Think that’s big? Naah. It’s tiny. Look how big some things are.

But Earth is still growing, so give it a chance. Dust and tiny cosmic debris lands on Earth all the time, adding a few million tons to the weight every year, and slowing it down. Rick Waller probably had quite an influence on our speed too, like keeping an anchor in the boot of your car. But most of the time you’d never spot the changes to our planet. In fact, you’d probably be amazed how much stuff happens to our planet that you don’t notice.

For example, last year there was a massive earthquake off the coast of Japan. Lots of people in Japan noticed, because it got quite damp underfoot, the buildings kept toppling over, and they all glowed red with radioactivity for a while. But over here in the UK you only knew about it if you watched the news. The actual quake was undetectable to us.

But it was so powerful it tilted our entire planet on its axis by 17 cm, and added about half a second to the time it takes us to orbit the Sun.

Think of all those earthquakes down the centuries, millenia and eras. Several per year, many of them much larger than the Japanese quake. Think of all those half seconds added to our orbit. Is a year now the same as a year was when the mammoth roamed the planet? Undoubtedly not!

So why bother celebrating birthdays? What are we even measuring? Yesterday marked the point when I’d been around the sun 42 times. Whoop-de-do. It looks the same from every angle as far as I’m concerned, so what’s the big deal? I’ve been round IKEA more than 42 times, and it seemed to take longer too, so why don’t I get a card for that?

(Not that I got many cards. It’s one of the things that the internet is killing off. I got a few texts and emails, and somebody threw virtual livestock at me on Facebook, but real-life, physical cards seem to be teetering on the brink of extinction, along with handwriting and newspapers.)

The whole “age” thing is meaningless, and that’s not just because I feel narked about only getting one card, dammit. I really feel that it’s utterly pointless to count birthdays after the age of 12. I used to think it was worth counting up until 65, so you knew when to retire. But the retirement age seems to be accelerating away from me faster than I’m aging, and I’m pretty convinced my fate is to work until I keel over dead, and have my pay docked if I stop generating income for the International Entirety Corporation one second before my heart stops splashing in my chest.

To me, the effect of every birthday since I got into double figures has been as undetectable as the Japanese earthquake on Earth. Sure, it changed stuff, but in such a tiny, unnoticeable way that it might as well have happened to somebody else on the other side of the planet.

I’m sure at one point in my life, age mattered. It wasn’t just years we counted, it was months, and in some cases the days. The fact I was a weekend older than Wayne Perry meant it was OK for me to steal his egg sandwiches on the school bus. Whereas these days, a 10, 15 or 20 year difference between me and my friends doesn’t mean a damn thing (although I do miss those egg sandwiches).

When you’re a kid you assume birthdays will be a rite of passage. I remember being wildly excited to reach 13, because it meant I was a now a teenager. But I hated being a teenager, just like every other teenager does, so that was a pointless birthday.

I mistakenly assumed being 16 meant I was a man, but it didn’t: it just meant I could legally buy cigarettes and watch The Transformers: The Movie. But I’ve never smoked, and The Transformers was a terrible movie the first time around. So that was a pointless birthday too, and I wished it had never happened, if it happened at all. I don’t remember anything about it, and I probably spent it like I spent Wednesday the 9th August 1986.

(I have absolutely no idea what I did on Wednesday 9th August 1986. It was just a day, like every other day is, and neither that date nor my 16th birthday mean anything to me.)

I was sure I’d become a man at 18, but I didn’t: I remained a specky geek with skin that made me look like I had the plague, and a magical superpower that made me invisible to women. At least they couldn’t see my festering face, so it wasn’t all bad.

At 25 I started to overhear parents in shops tell their errant brats to “behave or that man will shout”, and it after failing to see which man they were talking about it eventually dawned that it was me; and that consequently I might be drifting into adulthood, and becoming a tool for parents to scold their kids. It gave me a false sense of my own importance, and I experimented with giving people advice, like I knew a damn thing about life. I quickly gave up my career as an oracle because I still felt like a teenager. So what was the point of the previous dozen birthdays, each of which had drifted past without a trace?

I’d been promised 30 would bring big changes, but in all honesty it felt like being 29, but very slightly later. And 29 felt like 28, 28 like 27, and so on, back to the time I slithered out of my mum.

When I was 35 I was asked for ID while buying a bottle of whiskey in Tesco, and it occurred to me that literally the entire previous 20 years may as well have not happened. I grew a beard so at least there would be some evidence of a physical change over a couple of decades.

I forgot my 40th birthday, literally. I got a text message in the evening, and suddenly realised it was 11 June, and I was at a milestone. I wasn’t excited, or scared, or freaked out. I probably did what I’m going to do after I’ve written this: have a cup of tea and make dinner. Not much happened in my 40th year, at least not much that changed me. My dad jossed it during that year, but that wasn’t a thing that happened to me – it happened to him. So that doesn’t count, does it? Oh, and I had cancer. But inside I felt the same as I always did, but with fewer kidneys.

I’m 42 now, and wonder if it’ll ever change. Will I always feel 17, even when I’m looking at a wizened husk in the mirror, and ordering a bath-chair online? I used to assume I’d feel grown-up when I moved out of the ancestral manse, or started a business, or was no longer scared of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. But all of those things happened half a lifetime ago, and I still feel like a superannuated teenager.

I’m starting to think Groucho was right: a man isn’t as old as he feels, he’s as old as the woman he feels.

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Evolution in a nutshell

It’s pretty simple.

Do you look exactly like your parents? I mean, literally identical? You may have your mum’s nose, and your dad’s ears, but you’re not a carbon copy. You are different.

What happened there, you see, is evolution. You were created by mixing two sets of genes, and the result was something pretty similar, but not exactly the same. You may have the colouring of your parents, or if they’re tall it’s quite likely you will be too. But you’re not literally identical.

It’s called mutation.

Now multiply that by a few thousand generations. Bingo. Evolution. And the earth has been here for 4.2 billion years, with life for the last 2 billion. There’s been plenty of time!

“Ah”, I hear you say, “I accept that evolution might make humans have darker skin or be taller, but it can’t change a mongoose into a squirrel”.

Let’s imagine a herd of grazing animals on the grassy plains of Africa. They’re a kind of antelope. Just as with humans, there is some small variation between individuals. Some are taller. Some are weaker. Some have better eyesight. It’s only a tiny difference, and most of the time it doesn’t count.

Then a lion attacks. The antelope with the best eyesight sees it first, and runs into some trees.

The taller one has longer legs, and can run faster, and he heads out onto the plain.

The weaker one gets eaten.

The antelope with the good eyesight hides in deep undergrowth, and meets another “good eyesight” antelope, and they have kids. This continues for many generations, with the eyesight getting better, and the animal getting smaller so it can hide in bushes. In time, you have a Dik Dik. Huge eyes, tiny body, timid.

The antelope with the long legs ran onto the plain, where there were taller trees. He met another tall antelope, and they had babies, who inherited some of the features of their parents, including being tall. The tall babies survived when a drought came, because they could reach leaves that were higher up. Over many generations, the trend was for the antelope to get bigger and bigger. Zip forward 200,000 years, and you have a giraffe.

In the meantime the lions are also going through an evolutionary arms race. Getting faster, stronger, smarter. One species pushes the other. Different environments produce different results.

It’s called Evolution, and it’s the truth.

Intelligent design.

Some people say “OK, we believe evolution happens” (because frankly, to deny it is like denying the sun exists). “But”, they say, “it’s happening because God directed it according to His intelligent design”.

And my answer to that is: the laryngeal nerve.

The laryngeal nerve is a nerve which goes from the brain to the larynx, and helps with swallowing (and in animals that can make sounds, it controls vocalisation).

It first developed in fish. It took the shortest route from the brain to the larynx. In a fish the heart is close to the brain, right up behind the gills. So the nerve travelled down from the brain, went behind the heart, and then to the larynx. Note it goes behind the heart. That was the shortest distance.

When fish evolved onto land (something the lungfish is still doing today, evolution fans) they needed to be able to move their head in new ways, so they could spot predators. So they developed more of a neck, and that meant some of the organs got pushed down into the torso. Including the heart.

The laryngeal nerve still went behind the heart, but had to take a longer route. It’s much easier to adapt something than to scrap it and start again, so that’s what evolution did: it just kept extending the nerve in each generation, tiny change by tiny change.

Every land animal, dinosaur, lizard, bird, mongoose, bear, whale, cat and human has evolved from those early fish. And in every one of us, the nerve that controls our swallowing and vocals starts at the brain, leads down the neck, wraps around our heart, and back up again to the larynx.

Even the giraffe. A 22 foot long nerve to pass a signal to the larynx, which is only 4 inches away from the brain.

Intelligent design? If that’s as good as God gets, He’s not intelligent at all. And that’s not a design. That’s the result of unplanned chaos.

The truth is, evolution is random and uncontrolled, and only has the appearance of being “designed” in the same way that the water in a puddle fits perfectly into the depression in the ground. Nobody designed the water, it just works that way because of the laws of physics and chemistry.

Similarly, nobody “designed” a Dik Dik, it’s just the best solution for the environment it’s in. Change the environment, and the animal changes too.