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Seize the day – lessons from the Illuminator

A recent study suggests that human life is curtailed at about 120 years. The biblical dictum that no one would live beyond such a lifespan seems to be remarkably accurate (given a conservative 1% margin of error – for example Jeanne Calment, who died in 1997 at the age of 122). Is 120 years a long time? Scale is obviously somewhat relevant here (geologists would ignore such a piffling pittance of time) yet clearly from a personal perspective it also depends on what you do with it. Even with a theoretical end in sight, may be its important to recognise the obvious repeatedly that even if a limit is knowable (give or take) our own end is unpredictable (!). Terrifying as that may be, perhaps it’s good to ponder upon and remind ourselves yet again to seize the day! Live each day as if it were our last (or first with wonderment which I prefer!). A poignant reminder of this came to me this week.

On returning from holiday and reading a backlog of Science and Nature issues I realised I’d not heard about the sudden death of Roger Yonchien Tsien in August just passed. At 64, and from what I can judge in good health, for his life to be cut short is cruel to us all on many accounts – barely half way on a theoretical life journey and with so much potential to give (no doubt with immeasurable personal pain too for those who knew him directly). Yet his obituaries make for remarkable and humbling reading. From a child so passionate about chemistry at kindergarten, where he chose to attend on condition he could take a book All about the Wonders of Chemistry (a great read I’m told), to a world recognised Nobel laureate, endlessly curious scientist as well as brilliant innovator and faithful mentor to his students and staff. Roger achieved in his lifetime what armies of others would fail at. As a cell biologist Tsien for me is synonymous with GFP (the small protein he won the Nobel Prize for but spent most of his time trying to out-do) a protein that gave rise to engineering of a genetically encoded biomarker of everything from protein to DNA to lipid; a protein that has single-handedly transformed cell biology. This has led to so many revolutions they are impossible to list, but foremost in my mind is that GFP and its progeny helped to reveal an atlas of universes within each individual cell in our body. Of course obituaries glorify lives and cut out the undoubtedly hard and mundane times, but I can’t help but read his with a sense that this was a man who followed his passions, seized every day – led a full life (not just in the lab but at the piano or behind the camera lens). I find that inspiring, admittedly unnerving but also illuminating. Carpe diem!

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