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.

Photo: Getty
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The moonwalkers: what it's like to belong to the world's most exclusive club

"The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space."

It’s been almost 50 years since man first walked on the moon – and there were only a grand total of six missions.

From 1969 until 1972, as humanity reached out into space, these men – and they were all men – were at the forefront of scientific research and discovery.

But in 2017, the six survivors – now with a combined age of 505 – are the rare members of an exclusive club. The other six moonwalkers have already passed away.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was on Apollo 11, Charlie Duke was on Apollo 16 and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt was an Apollo 17 moonwalker. For the first time, at the Starmus festival in Trondheim, Norway, the three have come together to discuss their experience.

The three share “a special relationship, no question about it”, according to Duke. He tells me: “Our experiences are different but they’re the same in so many respects.”

Aldrin – unable to appear in person due to doctor’s orders – quips on camera from his home in Florida that President Dwight Eisenhower was advised that they should send a philosopher or maybe a poet up. His response, possibly apocryphal, came: “No, no - I want success."

As a result, it is up to these scientists to find the words to describe the off-Earth adventure which is the defining event of a moonwalker's life. 

A poetic description comes from Texan resident Duke. First and foremost a test pilot, his interest in space was piqued by the launch of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, in 1957. He joined Nasa in 1966.

Now 81, Duke served as mission control support throughout many Apollo missions, most notably as the voice of Capsule Communicator when Neil Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the Moon in 1969.

He tells me: “Once we left Earth’s orbit, we turned our spaceship around and there was the whole Earth 40,000km away.

“The blue and the white and the brown just hung in the blackness of space. That contrast between the vivid blackness and the bright Earth – this jewel of Earth I like to call it - was right there.”

Aldrin started his career as a mechanical engineer, before joining up as a jet fighter in the US Air Force during the Korean War.

His gung-ho spirit and enthusiasm for space have not deserted him even at the age of 87 – he appears onscreen at the festival wearing a "Get your ass to Mars" T-shirt.

The most memorable experience for him came when he congratulated Neil Armstrong, the first of the team to walk on the moon (he died in 2012). But in the lunarscape, memories get confused – the men remember the moment differently.

“After the landing, I looked over at Neil, and we smiled. I remember patting him on the back and he remembers shaking hands. So here were two first-hand witnesses and we couldn’t agree on what actually happened when we got there.”

For Aldrin, the significance of the moonwalk was looking at the moon’s surface from close-up – the lunar soil, or regolith – and what happened when an astronaut's boot stepped onto it. 

“It was so remarkable, the way that it retained its exact form,” he marvels, 48 years on.

Aldrin's fascination with the moon's surface was shared by Schmitt, the 12th, and so far, last, man to walk on the Moon. A trained geologist, he was also the first scientist to do so.

In Schmitt's case, the rocky surface of the moon was enough to draw him into lunar research, which he still conducts at the age of 81.

“The commander told me as soon as I got out I had to look up and see the Earth," he recalls. "I said ‘Well, chief, you’ve seen one Earth, you’ve seen them all’."

In truth, having spent three days looking at the Earth from his craft, Schmitt’s priority was in looking down at the new surface under his feet.

After landing in a valley deeper than the Grand Canyon, his chief concern was just getting to work collecting samples in a lifesize laboratory.

While the moment on the moon may be the initiation into an elevated celebrity, it is followed quite literally a fall back to earth. 

In his post-Moon life, Duke found God.

“A lot of us have a letdown [afterwards]," he admits. Duke was 36 when he landed on the moon in April 1972. By December, the Apollo programme was over. "In January ’73, the thought occurred to me, ‘what am I going to do now?’"

Achieving his life's ambition before hitting middle age turned out not to be as satisfying as he expected. "Because you’d climbed the top, you got to the ultimate high when you were still a young man - and the drive that took you to the ultimate high was still there," he says. "That was a struggle."

In the years since, Duke has looked at his experience as a religious one. Yet he insists God wasn’t present for him when he touched down on the lunar body.

“The Moon flight was not a spiritual experience," he says. "I didn’t understand the wonder of God’s universe. I was enjoying the beauty and the excitement of this mission.”

The three men agree that Mars is the next step for the future of humanity, but there are safety and speed concerns.

“There is potential important work to be done in better physiological understanding of human exposure to long duration space flight which is going to happen whenever we go to Mars,” says Schmitt.

“Anything we do as human beings that’s productive and worthwhile carries risk, either physical of psychological. Radiation, physiological exposure to weightlessness for long durations, and the danger of landing on a distant planet where the atmosphere is not going to be much help - but you do accept the risk that it might end up as a one-way trip.”

But after all of that - the life, the death, the heartache - Duke says he would go back up there if he could.

“At my age now I wouldn’t volunteer to go to Mars - but I would volunteer for a round-trip to the Moon again.”

Starmus Festival runs in Trondheim until Friday June 23. For more information, visit Starmus.

Kirstie McCrum is a freelance journalist. Follow her @kirstiemccrum.

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