“I would say no, my work has been very drudging — there are moments when I thought I finally understood a little bit, but it’s not like —” the dry voice at the other end of the telephone cut off. “I don’t think any biologist would tell you their work has been exciting.”
As far as I can tell, Caleb Finch ’61 is the only person who doesn’t find his research exciting. When I spoke to him over the phone in early 2018, he was the master of his field — the gerontologist among gerontologists, occupying a prestigious professorship at the University of Southern California and leading the fight against Alzheimer’s disease. He sported the long Santa Claus beard so common in those who study aging and, despite living in sunny Los Angeles, their classically gruff manner.
Finch gained his notoriety in the early ‘90s when he proposed the existence of animals that never age — if you’ve ever heard of the ephemeral “immortal jellyfish,” you’ve heard of him. Since then, his concept of “negligible senescence” — “senescence” being the biological jargon for an increase in the rate of death — has exploded into a new field of research. It’s gotten valuable attention from ambitious futurists who seek to co-opt that immortality for human beings, ranging from Silicon Valley billionaires to New York Times writers obsessed with the philosophy of life and transhumanism. It was largely Finch’s work that catapulted life extension out of the realm of science fiction and into circles with serious academic clout and funding. His career was, by any measure, tremendously important.
Sixty years ago, Finch was exactly who we are — an undergraduate at Yale trying to figure out what to do with his life. When I asked him how he settled on the career he seemed to have so little interest in, he described a conversation he had with senior faculty member as an upper-level student. “Somebody said, ‘Well, why don’t you think about aging? Even less is known about aging than about development,’” Finch remembered, with only mild irritation. “I wound up doing a Ph.D. on that.”
It’s noble to dedicate your life’s work to filling in the gaps of human knowledge. It’s especially noble to contribute to human health. But I couldn’t imagine spending 50 years on a question — getting further than anyone in the field — and still talking about that purpose as a box you reluctantly checked. Finch’s conversation reminded me of a friend of a friend who entered the University of Virginia as an engineering double major, but only so she could get a better job in business, which would only support what she really wanted to do, which was art. She no longer does art, ever.
So many ambitious young people choose paths they don’t enjoy, thinking that if they just make it past a few years of drudgery, success will make it all worth it. But Finch’s story proves that there is no amount of prestige that can give meaning to an endeavor that doesn’t feel meaningful to you. I was struck by the thought that after exhausting himself to lengthen others’ lives, he seems not to have enjoyed how he spent his own.
There’s a hypothesis in Finch’s field called “rate of living.” It holds that between, say, a 500-year-old Greenland shark or a 100-year-old tortoise, each living thing is allotted the same number of heartbeats or breaths, spent faster or slower over the centuries. It’s not the quantity of life, but the intensity, roughly; the variable that matters is often cliched as the “life in your years.” So when you’re narrowing down extracurriculars or declaring a path of study this semester, don’t just consider quantity — not of prestige, not of salary and certainly not of “boxes checked.” Start doing what you love now, because 50 years later, drudgery will still be drudgery.
Cat Orman is a first year in Hopper College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .