An hour a second

November 1, 2006

Lying awake unable to sleep last night, because I was imagining a voyage on one of those cargo ships that cross the Atlantic, I began to think about how that experience would force the pace of life to slow down, during the seven days or more it would take to reach Liverpool or Southampton from Montreal. Weather permitting, it could make for a very peaceful interlude between one thing and another. If someone were to film the voyage, it would also be relaxing to watch, later.

Then I started to wonder what a film of my life would actually look like speeded up, as in those films about the growth of weather systems or plants where everything happens at breakneck speed. How would my life appear, or anyone else’s for that matter, if you saw each hour of it compressed into one second? I tried to do a few calculations in my head last night but wasn’t up to it, so this morning I used a calculator. In my own life so far, I reckon I have lived some 486,500 hours, which if compressed to a second per hour would take 8109 minutes, i.e. five and a half days of viewing time. This is rather too long a movie to watch all the way through without pauses, though (for me at least) it would still be fascinating.

Or would it? Wouldn’t it (at that speed) all look rather same-ish? It would be colourful, all right, but there’d be so much jerky movement within each second (i.e. hour) of recording that it would be hard to see what was going on. The bits that would probably stand out would be the “long” stretches when I’ve been asleep (for up to 12 seconds at a time in some parts of my film) or otherwise obliged to keep still in one place, such as the occasions when I’ve travelled a long way by air or train, stuck in one seat (except that the vehicle would be seen to move like lightning across the world). However the great turning points of my life when the world changed for me and “time stood still” as the cliché has it, might hardly be detectable at all, unless I had a remote control device to freeze my film and zoom in. The same applies to moments of acute shame or embarrassment; they simply would not register. Nor would the endless, boring meetings I’ve sat through, because in this version of my life, they’d be over in two or three seconds.

So when you have a near death experience and, as the other cliché has it, “your whole life flashes before you”, is it a fast-forward from birth of your outward experiences? I think not. I suspect that what you’d relive most vividly is your inner life and your feelings about the Others who people it.

In that existence, time, distance, repetition and velocity are of little importance.

2 Responses to “An hour a second”

  1. Chris Hobbs Says:

    Of course, the other way to do this is the Tristram Shandy way—slow the story of your life down so that each day takes a year to describe. That way you live for ever.

  2. Emma Says:

    I watched a tv programme about time. In it they did an interesting experiment. They dropped a chap from 40 m onto a big catch net – during the drop he was in free-fall with nothing attached to him. On his wrist was a display with a number flashing on and off very fast. Before the fall he couldn’t read the number. During the fall he could. Time had genuinely slowed down for him.


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