Is anything truly irreversible?
Arthritis, the college years, and the lasting social effects of COVID-19
In the past few weeks, I’ve walked through the cold to my UROP, my in-person lab class, and the grocery store. Californians in Boston are generally divided into two categories: the ones who are terrified of the cold and wear excessively puffy jackets, and the ones who are wholly unprepared and continue existing in t-shirts and shorts.
My mom falls into the first category, while I fall into the second. So, even as I wear the incredibly bulky jacket she forced me to bring to Boston, I feel the wind blow straight into my knee joints, given that I’m only wearing leggings. It’s slightly uncomfortable, but not so much that I’d put on the ski pants I was also required to bring. What’s more uncomfortable is the nagging voice in my head that I am “irreversibly damaging my joints.” My hands turn red and cracked, but not enough for me to put on the gloves sitting on my desk. Often, I can physically hear my mom telling me I’ll get arthritis at 30, I’ll catch a cold, or I’ll get migraines when I get older if I go to bed with wet hair.
Sometimes I’m inclined to believe her — but how would I know? How is 60-year-old me going to come back in time and tell me that, indeed, I would have migraines and arthritis?
In chemistry, we learn that every reaction is reversible, as long as enough energy is supplied to push the reaction towards favorability. And I think that’s how I used to think about things: Brute force and energy are all I need to make anything happen. Gibbs and Le Chatelier said so. That’s certainly how I pushed myself to exhaustion and beyond, with the guarantee that I could make up my sleep debt “sometime in the future.”
But now, as an old and weary upperclassman, I’ve begun to consider the other lesson learned in chemistry classes: relevant time frames. There are reactions that can be considered “to completion,” meaning you can assume that all the reactants are converted to products and proceed to the next step. Though the reverse reaction might happen, it probably won’t in the few minutes it takes to add the next reagent.
This is especially important in biology and psychology. The purpose of enzymes is to speed up spontaneous, yet incredibly slow, processes to a rate where life can function. Similarly, no matter how much energy is expended into learning a language now, I’ll probably always be better at the two I learned as a child, because the window of opportunity closes at a certain age.
In the span of a lifetime, will I ever find the time to turn back? Even if I do, will it be possible to reverse anything solely with effort? Sometimes delta G is a mountain I don’t want to climb, even if I could. The number of conversations I’ve had with friends that end with “I’ll get a job, I’ll work, and then I’ll die” make the future seem bleak.
That brings me to the thought that instigated this week’s article: Are we losing something in these college years, because of the pandemic, that we won’t ever be able to get back, regardless of how much energy we pour into it? Not only the carefree pseudo-adult life, but also the bonds, the traditions (having to explain the pumpkin and piano drop to frosh hurts my soul), and the quirks that make MIT, MIT. Will it be forever impossible to catch up to those ahead of us?
Granted, many people are already worried about young children who won’t learn how to socialize or play and share with others because of remote learning. I’m not sure if “the college years” are something to cry over, but they certainly are something special. The past year has been bizarre, and lonesome, given that socialization is a near necessity for humans. But we’re the generation that grew up on the internet, and I believe we can survive what we’ve lost.