Life is short... but only if you're boring

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Three years ago I went skydiving. It’s hard to remember how I convinced myself to do this, but it probably had parallels with how I get up in the mornings, exercise, or start going out with people: blurrily pretending it’s not happening until far too late.

But from the moment major fear kicked in, as I sat on the rattling edge between the inside of a plane and my dangling, sky-surrounded legs, my recall is near perfect.

The plane was dark pink. I was strapped to an instructor, who had the parachute, but there was also a pale green handle attached to my left side, just under my hand.

“Is this the cord that releases the parachute?”

“No, that’s the handle that separates you from me.”

I let go of the handle, the straps and my own sleeves, and spent the fall in the uncomplicated pose of Coyote from Looney Tunes, after he’s already hit the ground. It was extremely cold, I couldn’t really see, and the G-forces toyed with me like lint in a Dyson.

After exactly 20 minutes of this, the parachute opened.  “Wow, that was amazing,” I said, “really, really amazing.”

“Stop panicking – we’re nearly done.”

We were. The whole thing was over in four minutes  - the free-fall bit had been a matter of seconds. But my memory of it plays out as a full 20-minute narrative.

Physicists tell us that time can speed up, warp and shoot off in odd directions, but we never seem to feel these changes. Our inner clock usually records time passing in a manner that is fairly well synced to our wristwatches. In certain situations, though, especially those inspired by fear, our minds seem to be able to stretch time out like a wet jumper.

An experiment conducted by David Eagleman at the Baylor College of Medicine aimed to work out whether this odd illusion was experienced in the moment of fear itself, or after.  Do we, like characters in the Matrix, see time passing at a slower rate as we experience it (low pitched bullets droning past, water droplets suspended like jellies) or do we make it all up afterwards?

He persuaded a number of brave participants to SCAD-jump – drop 150 unsupported feet into a net. This was terrifying enough to bring out the slow-motion effect: afterwards, on average, the subjects overestimated the length of their fall by 36 per cent.

He gave everyone a chronometer, a watch that flashes numbers a little too fast to see. If the fallers experienced time-slowing, he reckoned they just might be able to see the numbers on their way down.

This turned out not to be the case, and he concluded that the time mistake happened in the memory. The slowed effect, he suggested, had been a function of hyper fast brain activity. The amygdala (seat of emotion and memory) had been jolted into recording every last detail of the experience. Rolled out afterwards, the bulked-up memory seemed to stretch far longer than would be accurate.

Live fast, live long

Time for us, then, depends a little on sensation. The days may indeed go faster as we get older and more emotionally stable, but expand again when we do something exciting.

So perhaps my conclusion should be “live fast: live long” – cramming our days with adrenaline highs might be the best way to slow the vertiginous pace of time. Interesting, but also, in some ways, very much whatevs. I’m not skydiving again.

Skydiving. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.