Working out day after day can seem repetitive and boring until I turn on my intellectual zoom lens. For example, if I'm in the middle of a rough set of push-ups, I find it helpful to zoom in a bit, to think about how the pectoral muscles fan out from my sternum to my shoulder at various angles, and to feel which angle in particular is being taxed at the moment. If I change my grip does it change the angle? And if so, how?
Or I can increase the magnification and think about how the burning sensation in the muscle is due to excess protons accumulating as the waste product of my body breaking up ATP. I can even click into the next sublevel and think about how protons are made of two up quarks and one down quark, and how everything in the universe is made up of these crazy fractional charges, interacting with each other in such a way that we have arrived at this point in the cosmos where my chest and shoulders are on fire because I'm choosing to continue moving my body up and down against the gravitational force of an entire planet.
You can see how somewhere in there a push-up suddenly became interesting again. That's the power of the intellectual zoom lens.
Today I want to turn the zoom lens on the question of why. Why eat right? Why exercise at all? Why not let it all go, pack on some body fat, shed some muscle, and devote all this time and energy spent on fitness to any of the hundreds of other things that interest me?
At the default zoom level, I can answer that I just feel better when I eat right and exercise. I sleep better, I think better, and I can be more present and tuned into those other things that interest me. Zooming out a bit I can say that I like being able to keep up with my daughter and her friends. I don't want to be that dad who has to take a breather on the playground every 5 minutes. Zooming out even more I can think about how making healthier choices with my food and time moves the cultural needle; I'm not sending money to processed food manufacturers, I'm sending it to vegetable growers instead, voting with my feet and my dollar for a healthier society. And if I keep zooming out I get to the big answer, which is that I'd like to squeeze out as many functional, productive years on this planet as I can. And why is that? To see cool shit.
Some of that cool shit is personal, treacly stuff like seeing my daughter graduate from university or being at her wedding, but most of it is being there for the big global events that we all get to take part in together. This is the stuff that excites my curiosity and challenges my intellect, for which I want to be at my full capacity in body and mind.
Being alive here at the start of the 21st century is like winning the "history of mankind" jackpot. So many things are coming together now, and the next 50 years are going to be remembered as the century when everything changed. I imagine that being born in 15,000 BCE wasn't much different than being born in 14,900 BCE. Maybe circular fire pits were all the rage, or stone axes were chipped slightly differently or something. But being born in the year 1900 vs. 2000? It's like a different planet. And the change is only speeding up.
So, when I'm waking up every day and choosing vegetables and fruit over processed food, and hitting a workout instead of lounging around, I've got my eye on maintaining this body and mind for a solid 50 years. Because there's no way I want to miss the following ten things:
The decline of fossil fuels
Burning trapped carbon from dead plant and animal life is a pretty roundabout way to do things, especially when we have a fusion factory 8 light minutes away hitting the planet with a year's worth of energy every hour. I'm thrilled to see the gains we're making in the capture and storage of solar power, and I look forward to the day I can switch on a light or start up a car and know it's running on clean sun-powered energy. Beyond solar, modern nuclear plants are coming up with some ingenious methods of creating less hazardous waste, and using what waste is produced for further nuclear fission down the chain. With a concentrated effort we could get ourselves off fossil fuels right now. The technology is already here. It's just a matter of political will, and I want to be one of the people pushing in the right direction.
But the day I'm really trying to survive to is the announcement of successful, sustainable fusion. We always seem tantalizingly close, but can't ever seem to make it over the line. If we ever do I imagine it will be near the end of my life, but with fusion figured out I could die a happy man.
I remember as a kid the first time I went through a self-checkout line at the supermarket. It made so much sense to me. Why should anyone have to spend their days beeping items across a scanner? What a crappy job. Automation at its best frees us from the drudgery of daily toil and lets us bend our intellects towards higher purposes. There will be a lot of pushback around automation as one traditional career after another falls victim to it. In 30 years I can't imagine there will be many factory workers, warehouse pickers, drivers, or data entry jobs left in the world. This is a good thing. Why fight to retain jobs that a machine can do? I hope to see humanity find new purpose as we move beyond menial labor. I don't have any confidence that this transition will be smooth or even violence free, but I want to be around to see what happens. Which leads us right to...
There's a theoretical point in time when we design an artificial intelligence that is both smarter than us and self improving. This AI can then bend its superior mind towards making itself smarter and smarter at exponential rates. Within hours it may go from learning algebra to solving the mysteries of the universe. This point is called the singularity, and a lot of theorists predict it will happen in the next 50 years. I'm both terrified and fascinated by this possibility, and would love to be around to wrestle with the issues this new world will present to us.
I feel like people aren't seeing how drastically this will change our lives. Autonomous cars never drive angry, never drive drunk or high, never get sleepy, and never let their attention dip, even for a second. In the US around 40,000 people are killed in car accidents every year. Many multiples of that are maimed or injured for life. It's a stupid system that we're just about ready to move beyond.
Aside from the human misery cars cause, when you can jump in the back of a vehicle, tell it where to go, and spend that transit time doing something else, we'll free up billions of man-hours. Or imagine bundling up your little one, telling the car to take her to soccer practice, and knowing that she'll arrive there safely and without incident. When these cars are all networked and able to talk to each other, traffic jams will be a thing of the past, and we'll spend more of our lives doing the things we'd like to be doing, rather than traveling to and from those things.
To make all this technology work, we're going to need a lot of precious metals. Right now these metals come from some pretty unsavory places and are strip-mined in a way that's harmful to the environment and the people living nearby. A handful of companies are looking to start retrieving rare metals like platinum from nearby asteroids. Just one of these asteroids has enough precious metals to completely upend the market. What a blast it would be to see us enter space not as noble explorers, but as asteroid miners and space truckers!
The post-scarcity economy
Our entire economic system is designed around the fact that we're competing for resources. This is a zero-sum game where my gain is your loss. Cracking things like fusion and asteroid mining will move humanity past the dog eat dog situation we're in now. How will we handle this transition? In the best case, we'll have a Star Trek future, where we've transcended out petty differences and are united under the banner of exploration and discovery. In the worst case, we'll be living in an apocalyptic world where the privileged few have access to abundant resources while the rest of us tear each other to pieces for the scraps (we're not too far from that now). I'd like to be healthy and strong enough to do my part to make the future a little more Star Trek and a little less Mad Max.
Manned mission to Mars
The moon landings happened well before I was born. I've never seen a human do much else besides loop around the planet in low earth orbit. To be alive when the first person sets foot on another planet... what a rush that will be. I can't imagine a history book that would omit that date, even a thousand years from now.
NASA already has this mission in the books for 2036. That would put me in my 50s. Given the way these things go, I should probably plan on being in my 70s before it really happens. This alone is motivation enough for me to eat right and exercise for the long haul.
The discovery of alien life
This one could go three ways. One is that we discover microbial or even animal life somewhere else in our solar system, like the soil of Mars or the oceans of Europa. We then check out whether the life uses DNA as its principle building block. If it does, that points to panspermia, the idea that life pollenates across planets and that the Earth was seeded billions of years ago. If it's not DNA then we know that life can take all kinds of forms and is full of surprises. And the fact that we found two sources of life in our own dinky solar system would mean that the universe is crammed full of life.
Another outcome, the one that keeps me eating my veggies, is the idea that we could spot a star giving off telltale signs that intelligent life is acting on it. We recently had a thrilling peek at how this might feel when the Kepler telescope picked up a star with a jaw-dropping 22% change in flux as something passed in front of it at irregular intervals. The safe bet is that it's a swarm of comets, but there's the slimmest of slim chances that it could be a giant alien structure like a Dyson swarm collecting energy from the star. Scientists are working double time to take another look at the star (named KIC 8462852), and will most likely prove that the dip in flux is a natural occurrence, but just thinking about how discovery of another advanced civilization would turn the world upside down kept me awake for a week.
The third outcome is that in 50 years we still haven't found any trace of life beyond Earth. This is also fascinating because it leads to the question, "Where is everyone!?" This is known as the Fermi paradox, and thinking and talking through the paradox is in and of itself a worthwhile use of what years I have left.
It's not all about stargazing however. There are millions of clever researchers devoting their careers to extending and enhancing human lifespans. In the last hundred years we've already tacked on a good 15 years to adult life expectancy. Current advances seem on track to add another 15 to that. And if we hit on a breakthrough with nanotechnology, stem cells, or organ replacement the sky's the limit. I can only hope that my generation is one of the last that has to accept a measly 100 years or so of life. Perhaps my daughter and her future daughters will expect much more.
Some of the things in this list are moonshots, but this one is just around the corner. In the next 10 years we're going to experience a whole new wave of technology that will immerse us in our games, movies, and media like never before. How we learn to deal with the temptation to spend all day plugged into an awesome virtual world is going to be fascinating to see. At its best, this technology can give us new experiences that deepen our shared humanity. At its worst it can isolate and separate us from the real world. I'm insanely curious how it will all shake out.
The wild card
Most exciting of all is knowing that the biggest changes coming are the ones no one knows about yet. Maybe a young genius is in a garage right now figuring out how antimatter works. Maybe we'll discover that we're all simulations running in an advanced species' supercomputer. There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. Nassim Taleb calls these 'black swans', and history is littered with them; events no one saw coming but which inordinately shaped human history. The truly unknown stuff is out there, and I bet there will be at least one wild card played in the next 50 years. Here's hoping it's exciting and cool, not terrifying and world-ending. Either way, I'd like to be around to see it.
So there you have it, with the intellectual zoom lens pulled all the way back, these are some of the reasons I'm working to stay as healthy and strong as possible. Maybe I'm weird, but I just get so excited about the future that I feel compelled to take care of whatever business in the present will grant me more years to see how it unfolds. And we've pretty much gotten to the bottom of the best practices you can do for a long and healhty life:
1. Don't smoke. Smoking kills the human.
2. Eat a varied diet consisting mostly of vegetables and fruit. Don't overdo the proteins, fats, or sugars.
3. Maintain a relatively low body fat with correct portion size.
4. Maintain good muscle mass and bone density through consistent exercise.
5. When something feels off with your body, go to the doctor. With almost all diseases, early detection will save your life.
If you can get these five things right you have a good shot at seeing what the future has in store for us. I look forward to sharing the wild ride with you. Let me know in the comments what big-picture things keep you inspired to stay fit for the long term!