Time to humans

The human eye ain’t to good at seeing slow things or very fast things. The industry standard for movies is to use 24 frames per second (Lord of the Rings used 48fps, which is why it looked so smooth; TV cartoons can be as low as 12 fps, which is why they look so stilted). While our eyes can refresh much faster than that, we see a relatively smooth moving image at that refresh rate. We navigate our world by seeing somewhere in that 24 images per second. Something that sees at 48 images per second experiences time 2x as slow as us. Lots of cool information on this, but very hard to find any information about what the slowest movement we can detect is. I assume it’s probably something around 1 frame per 10 seconds or so. Outside of that range (<.1fps or >24fps) our brains really can’t perceive motion. We miss the slow spiraling movements of a pea sensing for something to vine up, or the growth of a new leaf emerging from a dormant bud, a cloud appearing and disappearing, or the stars traversing the night sky. It’s only when we speed slow things up to a more human scale that we can see the “behavior” of these sluggish things interacting with the world.

Time to seastars

Take, for example, the humble, Pisaster ochraceus. One of my first experiences of how our perception limits our understanding of the world comes from Don Wobber’s timelapse photography featured in the PBS series, The Shape of Life. His work revealed a complex web of interactions between sea stars – arm wrestling, fights for dominance, social interactions across species lines – that had never been seen before. It was all happening, we just couldn’t perceive it until we saw the world at their pace.

Time to rocks

Shortly after watching the Shape of Life series on PBS, I saw “Das Rad” a German short animation featured in The Animation Show. The film explores this idea of timescales by following the conversation of two rock piles. More entertaining than it sounds. Just wanted to share that here.

Time to glaciers

The same is true of glaciers, which creak, groan, bend, and flow their way over mountains and through valleys at, yes, a glacial pace. James Balog’s timelapse photography of glaciers (above) shows both their advance (movement) and ablation (melting). Okay, now this post turned out to be longer than I thought, so I’ll leave it here and post the rest on how glaciers move later this week.

Digging all this natural history content?

Become a monthly supporter on Patreon.

Be sure to check the archives for back issues.
And shoot me an email if you have an idea for a future blog post, newsletter issue, or podcast episode!

Subscribe to the Newsletter