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Plunging Into the Science of BASE Jumping


Up next, time for our Video Pick of the Week. Flora Lichtman, our multimedia editor is here.

Hi, Flora.


FLATOW: You have a super-duper, super-duper this week.

LICHTMAN: Yes, and we have one of our listeners to thank. It is about - this week's video is about humans who fly.

FLATOW: Humans who - well, you get in the plane and you fly.

LICHTMAN: No, no, no. No. Humans who fly across cliff sides and through crevasses. We're talking about skydiving and, specifically, we're talking about BASE jumping.

FLATOW: Base jumping?

LICHTMAN: Yes. And the listener who came to us with this video idea and the footage - I should say - is Luke Hively. And he is an avid BASE jumper. He's actually been - I think he's racked over 2,500 skydives.

FLATOW: So BASE jumping means you go up on a high cliff and you put on a flying outfit and you jump off.

LICHTMAN: Well, this is - yes, that is one of them. BASE stands - it's an acronym that stands for the objects you jump off of, so buildings, antennas, spans - which are bridges - and earth. And Luke shared some of his earth footage. He was in Switzerland, and it's really - it's just spectacular. And there's a little bit of science there, too.

So one thing that happened on his last trip is that he zoomed right through this waterfall. And behind him, he saw this amazing thing. He saw these vortices that I think, you know, anyone who knows anything about aerodynamics will be familiar with this phenomenon, this swirling - these swirls of air behind him. And this is what it gets fluid dynamicists really excited. So we talked a few of them about it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And we'll watch that video. It's our Video Pick of the Week. It's up on our website at - beautiful, beautiful video, camera mounted on a helmet. Let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

LICHTMAN: Yes. So he has a camera on the helmet, on his belly, on his back, and you can just see the world in a way that, you know, if you're not a BASE jumper...

FLATOW: Of course...

LICHTMAN:'ve never seen it before, believe me. But the other thing is that it's kind of scary to me as non-skydiver, non-BASE jumper. I just couldn't believe - you can't believe your eyes. Seeing these people just jump off of cliffs is truly bizarre. So I asked Luke, you know, why do you do this, and what do your parents say? And he said, well, first of all, my parents met skydiving, so there is no problem there. But also, he said, it's just totally euphoric. And the other thing he said that was really interesting to me about his experience is that even though it's only for under a minute, for most people it feels longer.

LUKE HIVELY: That 40 seconds, whatever it is, feels like about four minutes. It's almost like time stops.

LICHTMAN: So this phenomenon that Luke is talking about apparently is pretty widespread. He said that when you jump, when you're skydiving or BASE jumping, time seems to slow down. And it turns out that neuroscientists have actually looked into this. So I spoke with Chess Stetson. He's at Cal Tech. And he did a study where he had people jumping off of a building in freefall - of course.


FLATOW: Sure, why not. Sure. It must be grad students.

LICHTMAN: Those - it was at an amusement park.


LICHTMAN: And the theory he was testing was that maybe it's like in the movies. You know, maybe the reason time seems to slow down is because you're actually in slo-mo. Your eyes take in more per second than they would otherwise when you're in these high-stress situations. But, you know, it turns that that's not the answer. But he does have an alternate explanation that may apply to these BASE jumpers, too, assuming that it's a scary experience, which I think we can assume.

CHESS STETSON: When you get scared, adrenaline and other related molecules, like noradrenaline, are released in the body and in the brain. And in the brain, these molecules are associated with a structure called the amygdala, which is known to lay down memories during scary situations. So we think the most likely explanation is that you don't actually perceive more when you get scared, but you remember more of what you perceived.

LICHTMAN: In other words, that 30 seconds, when you are flying through the air in one of these wing suits, you're recording more memories from that, because it's, you know, unlike anything.

FLATOW: Sure. Sure.

LICHTMAN: It's not like your usual 30 seconds in front of the computer, or whatever.

FLATOW: Wow. And it's up there, if you want to see - the most - the scariest part for me watching this - it's in high definition - flying through, between the rock about as wide as his body. And he's got no jet pack on. He's just...

LICHTMAN: Yeah. Do not try this at home.

FLATOW: Don't try this at home.

LICHTMAN: I mean, Luke is like, I think, you know, has done this, I think, over 150 times or something, but I don't - it's amazing to me the fine focus...


LICHTMAN: ...with which you can steer these little wing suits.

FLATOW: You know, right through this - when the two rocks come together, and he turns his body to follow the contour of the rocks.

LICHTMAN: Oh, by the way, he's going 100 miles per hour.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah. Oh, by the way.


LICHTMAN: Just as an aside.

FLATOW: And then - and there - it's up - he's got a lot of cameras. As Flora says, he's got a lot of cameras on his body.

LICHTMAN: Beautiful HD cameras.

FLATOW: Beautiful. And you want to go - it's our Video Pick of the Week, up on our website at You can also download it on our iTunes. There's an app. And it's gorgeous and scary and thrilling at the same time.

LICHTMAN: It's really thrilling. If you don't think you'll ever do this - I'm not sure I ever will. This is the second-best, because this is really just spectacular. I wanted to just also remind people that we have a multimedia project going on right now courtesy of Annette Heist in our SciArts blog. We're looking for your leaves, your leaf pictures for a project we're doing. It's called The Leaf Pile. Go to Go to our arts blog, and get all the details on how to submit.

FLATOW: Some gorgeous - we did a great stuff at mushroom before. Now, they're doing with leaves.

LICHTMAN: It's fall. You know, it's the fall season.

FLATOW: Fall stuff. All right. Thank you, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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