Snapshots of Time

How long is a true snapshot of time?

Tourists inside a clock.
Photo by Anne McCarthy, Pexels

I remember when I was 16 or so and spending a Sunday afternoon with my grandparents, as I often did in the mid 1980s. I had been on the sofa with my grandmother, drawing or reading or something, and wasn’t particularly invested in the old Western my grandfather was watching. My attention was drawn to the mewling of a cat that was on screen. I wasn’t privy to the age of the picture, but made a quick assumption it was made in the early-to-mid 1950s, and the cat was likely a couple of years old. I surmised that this little runt had scampered off this mortal coil by now, but I found myself in what might possibly have been my first true existential thought. By modifying this thought as “true,” I simply mean I pondered this for some time, not in a fleeting manner such as most childhood existential quandaries—the origins of babies or the color of grass and skies. It was a realization that this cat actually occupied a space in time and happened to be photographed in a few seconds of its (I like to imagine) full, healthy life.

What I couldn’t know was where this cat came from. Presumably there was a mother cat that brought it into the world, and a father cat that did what he did to set the process in motion. Each of these cats had mothers and fathers, grandcats and so on. Did our screen cat bear progeny, and if so, how many generations? Where did this line end, if that was indeed its destiny? If not for this throwaway scene in a mostly-forgotten motion picture, I could never know of this cat’s being. The magnetic soundtrack containing the cat’s brittle cry could possibly be the only recorded evidence of what it sounded like.

I then noticed a cloud in a subsequent shot, and I marveled at its shape and texture, realizing that cloud came and went in moments—a voluptuous form borne of a precise equation of pressure, wind, and moisture that morphed from and into other shaped until it was miles away and ultimately no more. This was a snapshot in time I was witnessing, something that would never reëxist.

My wife, a student of mathematics, tells me numbers are infinite in both directions, an assertion to which I’m inclined to subscribe. As well, my rudimentary cinematographic scholarship tells me that each frame of this B-western to which my grandfather was nodding off is 1/24th of a second. But that 1/24th can be infinitely fractioned as well—1/48th, 1/96th, 1/192nd, and on and on. How long is a true snapshot of time? How many of these snapshots of time are smeared together in this frame of 35mm film? Can a “snapshot of time” really be quantified that way—like a frame rate? What is the frame rate of human perception? My concession is that “snapshot” is the best I can measure with the means I have, in this instance a frame of film.

Or look at the average still photograph and notice what’s in the image that will never exist in the same configuration again: a blade of grass, a splash in a river, a hair on a child’s head, a fly on the picnic blanket. After that 1/250th of a second it took (for the sake of argument) for the camera’s shutter to open, let in the amount of light dictated by the aperture, and close again, the moment’s over. Your memory, even an eidetic one, will not record all the minutiae available to your senses. But an emotion attached to that snapshot may likely stick with you indefinitely.

Note: I’m not versed in the realms of physics, metaphysics, quantum science, or any related fields. This was merely an observation I made and I’m not academically equipped to quote Sartre, Kierkegaard, et al., pro- or anti-. If anyone has something constructive to add, I’m all ears, but you won’t get a flame war out of me. (Do the kids still call them that?)

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