Radio review: A Sense of Time, and Outlook

12 April 2019

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AT ONE time or another, we have all wanted to be a swordfish — not to get the benefit of its threatening appendage, but for its ability to speed up and slow down its perception of time. They do it by altering the rate at which their brain gathers images: at 200 frames per second, they can see their prey travelling in something like slow motion; at 20, their environment becomes a blur. Humans operate at about 60 frames per second, at which speed a strip light appears to give off continuous light.

All this and much more came courtesy of A Sense of Time (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week). At the heart of the presenter Geoff Brown’s investigation was the question posed by the philosopher Thomas Nagel in a paper from 1974: “What is it like to be a bat?” Nagel’s central claim — we can never know — remains unchallenged, but the work of biologists studying eco-location suggests that bats live in a world where the perception of time can be manipulated to suit particular environmental circumstances.

This beautiful documentary concluded with a recording by Chris Watson of a wren’s densely complex song, played through an “acoustic microscope”. Slowed down, the call is transformed into a languid rhapsody. Were we humans to be able to hear it as wrens hear it, we would have no perceptual energy left for anything else; and we would collapse, exhausted, on the ground, as the birds chorused around us.

From one potentially dangerous superpower to another. Last Thursday’s Outlook strand (World Service) featured Jo Cameron, simultaneously blessed and cursed with “the happy gene”: a rare abnormality which renders her impervious to pain. She can manage invasive operations without painkillers, and, at age eight, noticed a broken arm only when it started going a funny colour. This is where it gets squirmy: she will notice that she has burned herself on the Aga only because of the smell of burning flesh — which is a most unusual smell, for her, given that she is a vegan.

All this she recounts with such amiable lightness that you almost forget what an extraordinary condition this is: the result of having seven times the normal amount of pain-suppressant in the body. And yet she is still ticklish.

As part of my Lenten penance, I have been sampling some of the more prominent religious podcasts currently available on Player.fm. A combination of pain-suppressant and the swordfish’s ability to speed up time was all that was going to get me through either The Areopagus, or the Not Religious Podcast; the lack of time constraint provides the presenters with an open pit for their verbal incontinence. Everyday Ethics was the only one worth the investment of time, and it is no surprise that this comes from the BBC — Radio Ulster, to be precise. Nevertheless, I vow to continue my trawl, and will report back.

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