How things happen faster than you sometimes notice

 A few years ago my wife and I took the ultra high-speed train from Amsterdam to Paris. It tore through the Netherlands and Belgium at what to our New Zealand eyes seemed a sharp pace.

I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord in 2004. It's not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place, despite Brown's description.
I took this picture inside the Gare du Nord. It’s not possible to see 16 outgoing lines from one place, despite Brown’s description.

Then it got to France, at which point the driver opened the throttle. Pow! Suddenly we were rattling along at over 300 km/h. Aircraft speed – at ground level. Turns out only the French lines are geared for those speeds. My wife wondered what might happen if the train derailed. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, as loudly as possible. ‘We’re moving faster than nerve impulses, so if we hit anything, the shock wave would kill you before you noticed.’

I said it in English, but of course that didn’t make any difference because everybody else on the train spoke it too. (To put a little geek into that, touch transmits at 273 km/h and pain at 2.1 km/h – yup, that slow. My advice also presupposed that the train would come to a dead stop in zero time, which probably wouldn’t happen, but it somehow seemed better not to start detailing the way trains actually crash).

Luckily the service was a lot safer than New Zealand’s railways, where trains have a habit of crashing off the end of lines, getting tangled in collapsed overheads, catching fire and otherwise causing mayhem. We rolled into Gare du Nord, disembarked and – declining to use Dan Brown’s The Of Vinci Code as a street guide because it’s obvious he’d never seen the places he was describing, went straight to our hotel.

The thing is that our biology is well geared for life on the African veldt. It’s good up to about running speed, or when it comes to dodging a tiger. Today? Not so much. And if things happen fast enough, we can’t even detect it until after the fact. These days we do a lot that falls into that category. And I don’t mean just swatting flies – something virtually impossible to do with your bare hands because the fly can see and point-manoeuvre faster than humans can detect it moving, still less counter-move. There’s also driving, which we get away with largely because, most of the time, we can predict the patterns ahead and compensate for them.

What worries me is that none of this is widely known. Our technology, quite seriously, pushes us beyond the physical limits of our built-in biology. And we do it daily. It’s worth a pause, as it were, to think about.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


10 thoughts on “How things happen faster than you sometimes notice

  1. One of the things aviators dread is “letting the airplane get ahead of them.” This is also known as situational awareness, or, as you say, pattern discernment. Our minds can think and predict faster than our bodies can simply react. Otherwise, how could Captain Kirk get away with rubbing his chin while staring at his main screen and tell Chekhov to come to “111 mark 3” — all the while moving at 10,000 or 1,000,000 times the speed of light? While the light from the main screen travels to his eyeballs and then moves into his brain at the speed of neurons, much less the speed of sound when he issues his orders?

    I think we’re rapidly moving into the era when machine operators will be programmers and once they give the “execute” order it had better be the right one, because there won’t be any recall.

    1. I saw an analysis once of what a real ‘space battle’ would be like, given ‘warp’ tech. It’d be over before Kirk could open his mouth – and I seem to recall reading at least one SF account, quite recently, where exactly that happened. I can’t recall what story. Of course it would make for very bad TV or cinema!

  2. The European trains are very fast. I took one with my sister from Barcelona to Paris. It was beautiful but I wanted to slow down time just to snap a picture or enjoy the moment. It’s as if you barely have time to process things. It felt a lot like you describe here. Interesting post!

    1. Those trains are seriously quick! And in more ways than one. My wife and I got from Soest to Amsterdam, thence to Paris – all by public transport – faster than if we’d gone to Schiphol and flown to Orly, what with the check-in times, waits, transfers and so on.

      1. Wow! They’re very seamless, aren’t they? I feel like they’ve really got it figured out in terms of public transportation in Europe, especially with the Paris metro. Soest must have been lovely- it looks very nice.

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