My 20-year college reunion is coming up at the start of next month (at the end of the week of DAMOP in Quebec-- I'm going to be completely wiped out...), so I've been thinking a bit about nostalgia. A little while back, the subject of reunions came up on an email list, and somebody trotted out the classic "Those are the best four years of your life" line. This produced a definite split, with some people scoffing at the idea that college or high school could legitimately be considered the "best," while a couple argued that it's not necessarily ridiculous on the face of it: after all, you're young, don't have many weighty responsibilities, are with your friends all the time, etc. Those can be good, fun years that stand out in a positive way without requiring the rest of your life to be unremitting toil and drudgery.
Of course, being a scientist and blogger, my immediate reaction was to start trying to figure what would be the best four-year period in my life. I've got it narrowed down to two, that are hard to choose between. In chronological order:
1998-2001: Beginning in early 1998, I started dating Kate; was an author on three papers in Physical Review Letters (on collisions in optical lattices, time-resolved collisions, and ultracold plasma) and one Physical Review A (on spin polarization and quantum statistics); spent three months living in Japan; finished my Ph.D. thesis and graduated; took a postdoc at Yale where I published a Science paper about squeezed states in BEC; and got my current job at Union. A little flexibility in the dates (starting in September of 1997, say) would pick up the lab work for the time-resolved collisions paper, too, which was pretty awesome. And if you gave me a redshirt year (on account of 9/11 kind of sucking, plus one bad stretch near the start of my postdoc) through June 2002, it would pick up our wedding as well.
(Incidentally, the wedding page leads to one of my lesser claims to nerd fame: a CollegeHumor video some years back spoofing sports drink commercials used one of the pictures from that page, and on a couple of different occasions, I've had students tell me that they saw my wedding picture in a funny video. Sadly, we didn't get any attribution, let alone cash.)
That's pretty hard to top, both personally and professionally, but another four-year stretch comes close:
2006-2009: Beginning in early 2006, I started blogging at ScienceBlogs, got tenure at Union; sold, wrote, and published How to Teach Physics to Your Dog; and, of course, SteelyKid was born, securing my ultimate place in the history books (once she realizes her ambition to be the first superhero ninja scientist lawyer in space, that is...). That's another awfully good stretch, personally and professionally, and a redshirt year would stretch to include my NSF grant for my research lab, another professional highlight.
If I had to pick only one of these,... Well, I don't, because it's my blog, and you can't make me. Those are tied for the best four-ish year period in my life to date. So there.
After that... Yeah, college (fall 1989-fall 1993) would be next. That was a damn fine stretch as well, with lots of good experiences-- learning physics, playing rugby, making friends I'm still close with-- that set the stage for everything else. The redshirt year would go back to pick up my senior year in high school, which was also pretty good (earlier years, less so, but by senior year I had a comfortable niche). So, while college doesn't make the cut for the best four years of my life, it doesn't seem completely outlandish that it would be in the conversation.
So, what's the best four-year window in your life to date?
Great post. My fluctuations happen on a much higher frequency so I cannot pick a favorite four-year period. I live a whole life's richness during that timescale.
I would expect college days and high school days to be the most commonly selected four-year periods among the population at large. Sure, some people would choose other periods, but I'm having trouble believing that those two are controversial choices.
Consider the jocks from your high school. Only a few high school stars go on to play that sport on a varsity team at a Division 1 university. For the rest, the high school years would almost certainly be the best, because they were top dogs during that period, and most of them were ordinary people afterward. Cheerleaders, ditto. I can understand why nerds wouldn't pick this period, but I'm sure many people would.
College years: many people are on their own for the first time, and as you said, not weighed down with the responsibilities of life. Again, not everybody would pick this period, but it shouldn't be a surprise if somebody does.
As for myself: There are three candidate periods, and my undergraduate years would be one of those three.
Which wedding photo was used? Some real classics in there, particularly one where you look like you are 40.
I'd probably pick a period that spans part of grad school, for various reasons similar to the ones in your 1998-2001 group. It is hard to beat the time when you met your wife.