Jimena Canales “A Tenth of a Second: A History’
A New Book Presentation:
In the late fifteenth century, clocks acquired minute hands. A century later, second hands appeared. But it wasn’t until the mid-nineteenth century that clocks recognized a tenth of a second, and, once they did, the profound impact of these tiny moments on our lives, our history, and our culture became immediately apparent. Uncovering the history behind this infinitesimal interval, A Tenth of a Second sheds new light on key characteristics of the modern era and illuminates the work of some of the most important scientists and philosophers of the last two centuries, leading to an original conclusion—while challenging historians, philosophers, and scientists alike—about what it means to write the history of a radically different topic and time period.
Tracing debates about the nature of time, causality, and free will, as well as the introduction of technologies that helped define modernity—from telegraphy to cinematography—Jimena Canales locates the lasting reverberations of this “perceptual moment” for science, philosophy, and mass media. Once scientists associated the value with the speed of thought, they developed reaction time experiments that helped define the field of experimental psychology and spurred advances in physiology and optics. At the same time, astronomers and physicists struggled to understand the magnitude of errors caused by results that were a tenth of a second off. And references to the interval were part of a general philosophical inquiry into time, temporal development, and sensory experience that involved reconsidering the contributions of Descartes and Kant in light of these newly discovered moments.
Extending the interval in order to consider its impact on much longer periods of time and featuring appearances by Henri Bergson, Walter Benjamin, and Albert Einstein, among others, A Tenth of a Second is, ultimately, an important contribution to history and a novel perspective on modernity.
“Although time is indefinitely divisible in theory, in practice it is not, as this book illustrates beautifully. The tenth of the second is a threshold on which physiology, physics, and philosophy stumble. In refereeing the dispute between Bergson and Einstein, Jimena Canales shows the fecundity of this other dimension of time, that of the new history of science that physicians as well as philosophers tend so easily to forget.”
“In this lucid and innovative book, Jimena Canales has crafted an extraordinary account of the broad cultural impact of new models of measurement and temporality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Her exemplary transdisciplinary work will be indispensable for any historical studies of the modernization of perception and cognition.”
“In the past, the history of the personal equation and of reaction time has been mainly an interesting topic for historians of astronomy and psychology. In her fascinating and innovative study, Canales convincingly argues that the tenth of a second plays a much more important role in modern science. A novel contribution that will find readers beyond the history of science.”
The University of Chicago Press
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