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nature fast and nature slow

8 august 2021

Nicholas Money's Nature Fast and Nature Slow seems to borrow an idea from the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History. The planetarium at the Rose is housed in a giant suspended globe; you can walk a spiral ramp around the globe and experience the history and scale of the Universe by looking at models and interpretive text along the walkway, which is divided into units by powers of magnitude in time and size. In similar fashion, Nature Fast and Nature Slow moves from the ultra-quick to the ultra-slow in biology, starting with timespans too instantaneous for human perception and scrolling out gradually till we get to the lifespan of Life itself.

Nature Fast and Nature Slow is an eclectic book, and Money does not worry too much about making every paragraph contribute to a central argument. Thus he can address topics that range from the nutritive qualities of breast milk (85) to the minuscule brain of the Greenland shark (113). The pretext for digression in a book that is all digressions is always how long something takes: from the microseconds it takes a jellyfish to release venom, to the billions and billions of years it takes the primordial biochemical soup to organize itself into aspen colonies and dolphins.

"Most of the age intervals delineated in these chapters," says Money,

are our inventions. Days are the sole exception. … Everything else is completely made up, even the second, of course, to which this book beats over so many orders of magnitude. (121)
I've left out one qualification there: years, Money notes, are real enough, but few organisms directly experience years. Plants may seem to, but their annual cycles are triggered by shorter-term stimuli, changing day length being paramount. (Leaving aside whether plants are conscious of much of anything; Money doubts it.)

Time itself is not arbitrary; Money holds with investigators of thermodynamics that future inexorably becomes past whether we're around to say so or not. But seconds, hours, weeks, months, decades, centuries, and other basic temporal units are arbitrary and culturally constructed (and for humans, years are almost entirely cultural constructs, though of course useful enough, especially in temperate-zone agriculture). Hours and months are real but they are not inevitable; cultural forbears less obsessed with multiples of 12 than the Sumerians might have bequeathed us ways of thinking about time in powers of ten or even odder bases.

Most of our key time units, though, happen to coincide roughly enough with some natural process that we think of them as natural. Weeks are sort of phases of the Moon; months are sort of a full lunar cycle and sort of the average human menstrual cycle. A century is roughly the outer limit of the human lifespan. But other useful spans remain unstandardized, like a "generation." (If you read enough Internet punditry, you might conclude that a new Generation is born every fifteen minutes.)

But other organisms experience different timescales, says Money, and their generations can be vastly different. Dragonflies process visual images so quickly that vertebrate activity seems slow-motion to them. Whales and tortoises, at the other end of the scale, must think nothing of the passage of a decade; and if sequoias and bristlecone pines think at all, they think nothing of centuries.

Nature Fast and Nature Slow is structured around seconds because we experience the present in terms of seconds. Most of our animal peers seem to as well. A minute, an hour, can seem proverbially brief or interminable depending on what impends or distracts in its course; a second is the raw material of life, the time it takes to execute any single action or experience any single sensation. Obviously some experiences are protracted, but we tend to experience them as sequences – and at the quicker end, some human reflexes take much less than a second, but we don't experience them as happening at all.

At times Nature Fast and Nature Slow seems more like a reflection on a lifespan than an argument; it is learned, wistful, and literate, assembling everything the author has learned in long research in mycology and voluminous reading in everything else, including John Milton. It reads almost like a valedictory to a career, though one hopes this impression is wrong, and there will be many more books ahead from Nik Money.

Money, Nicholas P. Nature Fast and Nature Slow: How life works, from fractions of a second to billions of years. London: Reaktion, 2021.