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.
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