Q & A in New Scientist magazine

Q & A in New Scientist magazine Geraint Lewis/Rex Features

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.

2nd-pic-119187460.jpg
(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)

Leave a comment

From the Blog

  • Perception on TNT
    Perception on TNT

    I am the scientific advisor for the TNT television drama, Perception, starring Eric McCormack and Rachael Leigh Cook. Learn more about the show.

  • Remembering a trail blazer - Francis Crick
    Remembering a trail blazer - Francis Crick

    Francis Crick, one of the premier biologists of the 20th century, passed away July 28, 2004, in San Diego. On his 88th birthday last June, I brought him chocolates and spent the day with him in his home in La Jolla.

  • After Sandy Hook: Why mental illness matters
    After Sandy Hook: Why mental illness matters

    The shootings at Sandy Hook sparked debate ranging from gun control to bulletproof windows. But the most fruitful approach may be to prioritize our discussion of mental illness.

  • Synesthesia lecture at the University of Sydney
    Synesthesia lecture at the University of Sydney

    Interested in synesthesia? Watch a lecture I gave at the University of Sydney in Australia.

Newsflashes

SUM at the Royal Opera House

ROHSUM has been turned into an opera at the Royal Opera House in London (Composer: Max Richter, Director: Wayne McGregor). The London Evening Standard hails the opera as "immersive, meditative and sweetly fascinating". Read about the background of the collaboration in Wired.

Neurolaw: The Brain on Trial

Want to know how neuroscience will force major changes in our criminal justice system? Read David's article The Brain on Trial in The Atlantic. Now anthologized in 2012 Best American Science and Nature Writing.
atlantic072011

Possibilianism at PopTech

Click here to watch David's talk on possibilianism at PopTech. Executive director Andrew Zolli wrote: "This is one of the best talks ever at PopTech. Everyone should watch this."

You are here:   HomeBlogQ & A in New Scientist magazine


Coming in 2014