I turned 54 today. It was a nice day: I got up early, as I often do these days, and started my day with sitting meditation followed by tai chi as the morning light appeared. At that time of day, the birds are crazy and happily singing; dawn has become my favorite time of day. My lovely wife, who was with me since I turned 21 but doesn’t love dawn even though she loves birds, made a nice avocado spread on toast, fresh fruit, and coffee. It doesn’t get much better than that! I walked into work, which is always a treat, had a good day there, and then had a great dinner with my Mom and Katherine. Lovely!
54 is not one of the “noteworthy” birthdays. It is getting kind of old but not yet crotchety old. I still feel pretty young except when I keep hurting myself running. I’m enjoying most things more than ever. The big birthdays are 50 or 60, because we have 10 fingers. 5 or 6 decades is a long time…!
If humans had 9 fingers, this would be my 6th novennial celebration, which by the sound of it would likely be a big deal. If we had 11 fingers, next year would be my 5th undecennial celebration, which would probably require a big trip or surprise party. My Dad was born with 11 fingers, but the extra thumb was removed shortly after birth. It is more common than many of us would think. According to Wikipedia, this type of polydactyl mutation in humans happens to 1 in every 3000 people. My cat Dedos is polydactyl, but he has an extra toe on each front paw, so for him the major birthdays would be my 48th (4th duodecennial) or 60th (5th duodecennial). I guess that explains his indifference to today’s birthday.
Have you ever wondered why most humans, other primates, cats, dogs, bears, and many other animals have 5 fingers and toes? Or why many chickens have 4 toes, except for some odd ones with 5? Among many other important genes, we all have a gene that makes a protein called “sonic hedgehog”. The “hedgehog” gene was discovered in fruit flies and found to control the formation of segments in the fly embryo, and flies with a mutant gene looked like little hedgehogs. This was a big-deal discovery that led to the 1995 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine. Sonic hedgehog is part of a family of genes that controls limb development and similar patterning in vertebrates. This family is very similar to the fly hedgehog gene, showing that 5 finger development and formation of fruit fly segments are all controlled by the same types of genes that have evolved to similar but distinct functions in different organisms. This is the reason I need to wait for another 6 years before my next “big” birthday.
Yesterday the news was filled with the discovery of a “Goldilocks” planet named Kepler-186f. This is reported to be the most Earth-like planet found to date. Goldilocks planets orbit their suns at a distance that is neither too hot nor too cold for liquid water and thus life as we know it. If I had been born on Kepler-186f, which takes 129.9 earth days to orbit its sun, I’d be 151.7 years old today. I doubt that it would be worthy of any special attention. But it is also is almost 500 light years away, so it would be at least that long before my blog post or your birthday greetings could reach each other. If Kepler-186f has life, it will take a lot more work to figure out how many toes they have.