By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By projecting a sequence of static images, movies create a facsimile of motion; Muybridge reverses that process, reducing motion to a series of stills. Though it is true, as he proved with the zoopraxiscope, that you can reassemble such series into a movielike illusion of motion, our enduring fascination with his work is the insight it provides into time's interstices. It is not the trotting of the horse that we care about here (the overall flow of the motion) but that single slice of time in which we witness the feet off the ground. Where movies trade in verbs — the director's cry is "Action!" — Muybridge trades in nouns, for in these endlessly reproduced images, figures in motion are transformed into objects in space, forever suspended, like insects in amber. It is precisely in this freezing that Muybridge foreshadows one of the major technological movements of the coming century.
We are used to hearing about the slicing of space — microchip manufacturers etching ever-thinner lines onto silicon, nanoengineers fabricating ever-smaller devices — but the ability to subdivide time has been an equally potent force in the modern techno-cultural landscape. Just as spatial exploration at superfine scales leads to new discoveries (think of quantum mechanics, and the revelations of the subatomic domain), so the ability to view microfine segments of time opens up new insights. The aerodynamics of bullets, the beating of hummingbirds' wings, and the astounding corona that rears up around a drop of water as it splashes into a pool — all these have been the fruits of high-speed photography. Since Muybridge, scientists have learned to shave time with an increasingly accurate blade.
Just two weeks ago, biophysicist Howard Petty at the University of Michigan Health System announced the stunning discovery of calcium waves pulsing through a cell. Petty captured these waves using super-high-speed imaging techniques with shutter speeds 600,000 times faster than regular video frames. As part of a cell's immune response, calcium wave regulation has implications for treating autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and multiple sclerosis.
At Stanford's Picosecond Free Electron Laser Center, physicists produce intense pulses of laser light minutely timed to last just a few picoseconds. A single picosecond is a mere millionth of a millionth of a second. With these pulses, scientists can observe the vibrational modes of proteins, thereby helping to understand the processes of energy transfer and dissipation in biological systems. But, the picosecond itself is only a way station. For 15 years, researchers have been dreaming about taking snapshots of chemical reactions. A National Research Council of Canada team led by Paul Corkum has generated pulses of just a few femtoseconds' duration — a femtosecond being a thousandth of a picosecond. Corkum's ultimate goal is the attosecond, a thousand times shorter still, just a billionth of a billionth of a second! At this scale, Corkum says, they should be able to catch molecules in the act of splitting apart.
From a horse's gait to the dance of chemical reactions, time becomes an instrument of illumination — make it stand still, and for a split second, all will be revealed.
RIVER OF SHADOWS: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West | By REBECCA SOLNIT | Farrar, Strauss and Giroux | 305 pages | $26 hardcover