As a scientist, what moments do you enjoy the most?
There have been various times when I have looked at the results of an experiment, or seen the results of an analysis, and had this feeling that I’m standing on virgin snow, in a place where no one has stood in the history of humankind — ever. Those moments are special.
What is your proudest professional achievement?
When I managed to convince the ethical review board to allow me to do a time-perception experiment which involved dropping people off a tower. I wanted to see whether time really does slow down in frightening situations. As the volunteers fell, I asked them to look at an LED watch on their wrists which alternately showed a number and its inverted image 20 times a second — slightly faster than people would normally be able to perceive. The volunteers reported that the fall lasted 36 per cent longer than it actually did, on average, but they still couldn’t read the number — which they should have been able to if time were really stretching out like a slow-motion movie.
Any other outlandish experiments up your sleeve?
I have been collecting a lot of narratives from people who have been near to death – what they thought when their motorcycle was going off a cliff, for example, or when they slid on ice towards a truck. Some people report panoramic memory – they feel that all of their life’s memories are there in front of them at the same time. I would really love to come up with a way to test the phenomenon but it’s very difficult to know how to pull it off. That’s something I’m chewing on.
(Image: John B. Carnett/Bonnier Corporation via Getty Images )
If you weren’t doing science what would you do?
I would write books full time. My first love was literature and that’s what I did as an undergraduate.
Some of your fiction books have been as unconventional as your experiments. How do you come up with your ideas?
I write exactly the books that I would want to read. The perfect book is where the next sentence is exactly the sentence I would want to see. It’s not a fail-safe formula though; I had a real hard time getting Sum: Tales from the afterlives published.
You once did a stint as a stand-up comedian. How was that?
That was terrific. I did it for about a year in my twenties but I just felt I outgrew it at some point. Rather than trying to make people laugh, it eventually morphed into me talking to the audience about the things I thought were important. The skills I learned paid off though, in terms of giving an engaging scientific talk.
What advice would you give a young scientist?
Stay wide-eyed and curious, like a kid – always. And be comfortable with uncertainty.
(Link to the original article in the New Scientist here)
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