Both man and machine are approaching the future at an ever-accelerating clip. Almost every year, our vehicles break speed records. This past fall, the X-43A scramjet-powered aircraft reached a speed of nearly Mach 10, beating a record of Mach 6.8 set only six months before.

Today’s fastest supercomputer, IBM’s Blue Gene, is about 450,000 times as speedy as the ruling machine of 30 years ago and twice as fleet as the fastest machine of just one year ago. We build passenger trains that travel 267 miles an hour and rocket cars that break the speed of sound. Meanwhile, improvements in training and physiological understanding allow us to surpass our own physical-performance benchmarks in record time, and technological advances make it possible to more accurately measure the breakneck speeds achieved in nature. Hold on to your seat—we’re not slowing down anytime soon.

.00000000709 mph

Pacific Plate: World’s Fastest Tectonic Plate

Drifting northwest at the lightning pace of four inches a year, the Pacific Plate, which stretches from California to Japan below the ocean floor, clocks in at 24 times as fast as the slowest of the dozen rocky sheets that compose the Earth’s crust.

5.17 mph

Alexander Popov: World’s Fastest Swimmer

Popov swam the 50-meter freestyle in 21.64 seconds at the summer 2000 Russian national championships. The 6’6″ swimmer’s disproportionately large feet enable his tremendous kick.

.0000237 mph

Bamboo: World’s fastest-growing plant

Bamboo grows up to three feet a day, more than 30 percent faster than any other plant. Parenchymal cells within the stem divide at a rapid rate to provide structural support for the woody grass. The result? Bamboo has one of the highest strength-to-weight ratios of any plant species.

37.6 mph

Secretariat: World’s fastest thoroughbred

In the 1973 Kentucky Derby, Secretariat set a record that has remained unbroken for 30 years. Autopsy records show that the horse’s heart weighed a hefty 21 pounds, three times the average for a thoroughbred his size.

.0000151 mph

Qori Kalis: World’s fastest-receding tropical glacier

Qori Kalis, a glacier that lies at above 18,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, is melting at a rate of nearly 700 feet a year. In 2002, Ohio State University paleoclimatologist Lonnie Thompson discovered a perfectly preserved Distichia muscoides, a moss-type plant that carbon dating measured as 5,200 years old, on the Qori Kalis. “The find was remarkable,” he says. “This tells us the glacier hasn’t been this small for more than 5,000 years.”

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