Producer Commentary

PROGRAM: Genetics of Aging & Longevity

AUTHOR: Karen Michel

October 2001:

The beginner's mind is both a wonderful and terrible thing.

There's a feeling that knowing or not knowing that what is to be known isn't really "knowable." There's also a sense that the certainty of figuring out when there is no such thing as "figuring," just leads to refiguring and the again not knowing - and finally "accepting."

Not that I'm there yet.

About the "accepting" phase: I can only accept that I may never get to truly understanding the science of aging and longevity. I am comforted by the fact that the many scientists I interviewed disagree on even the definitions involved - much less the causes, or approaches to the figuring out.

When I started this project, I read too much: background books for laypeople, then scientific articles with vocabularies not found in the Webster's Collegiate, and even the Oxford English Dictionary. I didn't know what many words meant, how they were pronounced, or why I should even care or if I should.

Then the words started becoming part of my vocabulary and, well, that was a transformative experience.

I ditched the general texts: they became what was screwing me up, with their overgeneralizations and certainty of each author.

Science may well be about finding answers, but the journey is full of and fraught with questions.

Certainty? Bah.

Reading about "science" served as a means of distancing me from the real life issues of aging and longevity. "Science" discusses worms, mice, flies, rats, monkeys - not humans.

I've learned the most about aging and longevity from my father.

My dad, 87, living alone, fell. He went to the hospital, hovering between living and dying. He's already outlived the actuarial tables, so chances were that his biological clock was already on rewind and could go kaput at any minute.

Between my interviews with scientists, I was in the VA Hospital in Los Angeles, talking with doctors about real life issues that barely reflected those scientific papers I'd read or the interviews I was doing.

It got weird.

"I'm going to interview Caleb Finch this afternoon," I'd say to the particularly cold doctor as a way of telling him that (a) I couldn't talk with him "later" and (b) maybe I knew a little something about the field of aging.

He was duly impressed, saying he'd heard Finch lecture.

Unfortunately, my research did nothing to improve my father's care. Then I interviewed Finch. It's all about chance operations and change, he said. I asked him whether aging was like the "I Ching," the so-called Chinese book of changes. He didn't know what I was referring to.

More disjuncture.

Life, science and philosophy seemingly part of a whole - but not.

Maybe we're all in beginner's mind. Just different parts of it.