We live in a world of unseeable beauty, so subtle and delicate that it is imperceptible to the human eye. To bring this invisible world to light, filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg bends the boundaries of time and space with high-speed cameras, time lapses and microscopes. At TED2014, he shares highlights from his latest project, a 3D film titled “Mysteries of the Unseen World,” which slows down, speeds up, and magnifies the astonishing wonders of nature.
What is the intersection between technology, art, and science? Curiosity and wonder because it drives us to explore because we’re surrounded by things we can’t see. And I love to use film to take us on a journey through portals of time and space, to make the invisible visible, because what that does, expands our horizons, it transforms our perception, it opens our minds, and it touches our heart.
So here are some scenes from my 3D IMAX film, “Mysteries of the Unseen World.” (Music) A movement is too slow for our eyes to detect, and time-lapse makes us discover and broaden our perspective of life. We can see how organisms emerge and grow, how a vine survives by creeping from the forest floor to look at the sunlight. And at the grand scale, time-lapse allows us to see our planet in motion.
We can view not only the vast sweep of nature but the restless movement of humanity. Each streaking dot represents a passenger plane. By turning air traffic data into time-lapse imagery, we can see something that’s above us constantly but invisible: the vast network of air travel over the United States. We can do the same thing with ships at sea.
We can turn data into a time-lapse view of a global economy in motion. And decades of data give us the view of our entire planet as a single organism sustained by currents circulating throughout the oceans and by clouds swirling through the atmosphere, pulsing with lightning, crowned by the Aurora Borealis. It may be the ultimate time-lapse image: the anatomy of Earth brought to life.
At the other extreme, some things move too fast for our eyes, but we have technology that can look into that world as well. With high-speed cameras, we can do the opposite of time-lapse. We can shoot images that are thousands of times faster than our vision. And we can see how nature’s ingenious devices work, and perhaps we can even imitate them.
When a dragonfly flutters by, you may not realize it, but it’s the greatest flier in nature. It can hover, fly backward, even upside down. And by tracking markers on an insect’s wings, we can visualize the airflow that they produce. Nobody knew the secret, but high speed shows that a dragonfly can move all four wings in different directions simultaneously. And what we learn can lead us to new kinds of robotic flyers that can expand our vision of important and remote places.
We’re giants, and we’re unaware of things that are too small for us to see. The electron microscope fires electrons, which creates images that can magnify things by as much as a million times. This is the egg of a butterfly. And unseen creatures are living all over your body, including mites that spend their entire lives dwelling on your eyelashes, crawling over your skin at night. Can you guess what this is? Sharkskin. A caterpillar’s mouth. The eye of a fruit fly. An eggshell. A flea. A snail’s tongue.
We think we know most of the animal kingdom, but there may be millions of tiny species waiting to be discovered. A spider also has great secrets because spiders’ silk thread is pound for pound stronger than steel but completely elastic. This journey will take us all the way down to the nanoworld. The silk is 100 times thinner than a human hair. On there are bacteria, and near that bacteria, ten times smaller, a virus. Inside of that, ten times smaller, three strands of DNA. And nearing the limit of our most powerful microscopes, single carbon atoms.
With the tip of a powerful microscope, we can actually move atoms and begin to create amazing nanodevices. Some could one day patrol our bodies for all kinds of diseases and clean out clogged arteries along the way. Tiny chemical machines of the future can one day, perhaps, repair DNA. We are on the threshold of extraordinary advances, born of our drive to unveil the mysteries of life.
So under an endless rain of cosmic dust, the air is full of pollen, micro-diamonds, and jewels from other planets and supernova explosions. People go about their lives surrounded by the unseeable. Knowing that there’s so much around us we can’t see forever changes our understanding of the world. By looking at unseen worlds, we recognize that we exist in the living universe, and this new perspective creates wonder and inspires us to become explorers in our backyards. Who knows what awaits to be seen and what new wonders will transform our lives. We’ll just have to see.