T E C H N O L O G Y A N D C U L T U R E
A Tenth of a Second: A History.
By Jimena Canales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.Pp. xii+288. $45.
A tenth of a second can make a difference. Consider the 100-meter dash,where sprinters aim to cut tenths,sometimes mere hundredths,of a secondfrom their time in order to win races and set records. Or take the NationalBasketball Association’s Knicks player Trent Tucker’s controversial game-winning basket—made in a tenth of a second, the only time remaining onthe clock—in Madison Square Garden twenty years ago.Finally,rue (or cel-ebrate) the recent determination by a pair of psychologists that it takes only a tenth of a second to make a lasting first impression. Astronomy, physics,psychology, and philosophy first brought a tenth of a second to notice inthe nineteenth century; this is the story that Jimena Canales, an associateprofessor of the history of science at Harvard University, tells in
A Tenth of a Second: A History
.In eight chapters Canales details the intellectual history of the scientificand philosophical debates about the meaning and the measurement of atenth of a second. It should be noted for the readers of
Technology and Culture
that the book does not explore the history of instruments meant tomeasure a tenth of a second (or smaller units of time);however,many read-ers will be interested in how it casts photography and cinematography anew as technologies through which scientists hoped to capture ineffablemoments of time. Three chapters adeptly parse debates and controversiesabout scientific observation,particularly in the field of astronomy,centeredon the tenth of a second. In particular, scientists disagreed about the sig-nificance of slight timing differences in scientific observations. Sincehumans are unable to record accurately the infinitesimal moment at whichsomething, such as the transit of a planet, begins, observational errors oc-cur. Called the“personal equation”in the nineteenth century, this variabil-ity in scientific observation, Canales explains, was an in-house secretamong scientists until late in the nineteenth century, largely as part of theeffort to secure for science the status of truth on the basis of its unparalleledclaims to objectivity.Ultimately, Canales shows how the understanding of short moments of time put forward by physicists contributed to the emergence of physics as“the privileged science of modernity” (p. 181). What is more, physics alsotrumped philosophy as the intellectual arbiter of the meaning of time. Tobring the story to a close, Canales contextualizes the 1922 meeting in Parisbetween Albert Einstein and philosopher Henri Bergson, sponsored by theLeague of Nations, where the two exchanged views about the nature of time. During this public colloquy, Einstein asserted that philosophical timedid not exist. In his view there existed only two forms of time: physical