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Monday, September 15, 2003
Originally from NPR's All Things Considered (in an edited form), Wednesday, September 10, 2003
By Paul Ford
Time folds and unfolds in the rhythm of heartbearts, which leads to a theory.
I'm 2 hours early for my flight out of Orlando, and my heart beats nearly 10,000 times as I sit reading a magazine. Compare that to the flight, where, moving 500 miles an hour, my heart beats 15 times per mile. In only three heartbeats -- thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump -- I go 1000 feet.
You could measure life this way. 15 heartbeats per mile on the plane, 250 per mile on the bus back to my apartment. More or less infinite heartbeats per mile when I get home and unpack. When a friend called me up, rather than saying, "I'm busy," I might say, "I'm about 10 heartbeats a mile right now, can I call you back?" Instead of "I feel lazy," I might say, "I'm a million beats per mile, let's do it later."
Sitting at my computer, I'd expect countless heartbeats per mile. But information turns out to be even faster than airplanes. My disembodied self goes flying around the world in Web clicks and emails. The-thump, a web page from Japan pops up on my screen in Brooklyn. Thu-thump, an email goes out with a destination oceans away. That message is moving so quickly it could loop the world 6 times in a single heartbeat. For microchip designers, who must build the foundation for this light-speed travel, every breath is divided into a billion parts. They work in nanoseconds, stretching their perception of time to an absolute limit. Such inward travel takes its toll. In The Soul of a New Machine, the famous narrative of hardware design, one engineer finally gives up. He leaves a note that says, "I am going to a commune in Vermont and will deal with no unit of time shorter than a season."
If you average it all out, all your heartbeats per mile, you'd have a number. If you could get someone else's number and compare it to your own, you'd know if, relative to you, they were going to stay where they were, or if they're on their way somewhere else.
You could put this number in your personal ad, or use it as an excuse to break up with your girlfriend.
At the gym, I train on a stationary bicycle, and a sensor listens to the pressure in my hands, giving me my heart rate, my calories burned, my imaginary miles traversed. I do this in order to get more out of my heart in the long run, over the course of my life, more beats overall, more opportunities to fly at 15, or walk at 1200, beats per mile. After the gym I walk home, take one last jaunt around the world by checking my email, and sleep-my heart beating 35,000 times as I go absolutely nowhere.