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Technology and Culture, Volume 52, Number 1, January 2011, pp. 212-213 (Article) Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press DOI: 10.1353/tech.2011.0020
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A Tenth of a Second: A History. By Jimena Canales. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. Pp. xii+288. $45.
JANUARY 2011 VOL. 52
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 second from their time in order to win races and set records. Or take the National Basketball Association’s Knicks player Trent Tucker’s controversial gamewinning basket—made in a tenth of a second, the only time remaining on the clock—in Madison Square Garden twenty years ago. Finally, rue (or celebrate) 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 in the nineteenth century; this is the story that Jimena Canales, an associate professor 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 scientific and philosophical debates about the meaning and the measurement of a tenth 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 to measure a tenth of a second (or smaller units of time); however, many readers will be interested in how it casts photography and cinematography anew as technologies through which scientists hoped to capture ineffable moments of time. Three chapters adeptly parse debates and controversies about scientific observation, particularly in the field of astronomy, centered on the tenth of a second. In particular, scientists disagreed about the significance of slight timing differences in scientific observations. Since humans are unable to record accurately the infinitesimal moment at which something, such as the transit of a planet, begins, observational errors occur. Called the “personal equation” in the nineteenth century, this variability in scientific observation, Canales explains, was an in-house secret among scientists until late in the nineteenth century, largely as part of the effort to secure for science the status of truth on the basis of its unparalleled claims 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 also trumped philosophy as the intellectual arbiter of the meaning of time. To bring the story to a close, Canales contextualizes the 1922 meeting in Paris between Albert Einstein and philosopher Henri Bergson, sponsored by the League of Nations, where the two exchanged views about the nature of time. During this public colloquy, Einstein asserted that philosophical time did not exist. In his view there existed only two forms of time: physical
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time, which was independent of observation, and psychological time, which was in Einstein’s words the result of “mental constructs” (p. 184). Despite pushing Bergson to take important departures in terms of philosophy, this debate contributed to the corrosion of philosophy’s “prestige vis-à-vis science” (p. 181). It also ended the period of modernity during which “a tenth of a second” was an important touchstone. Canales contends that a tenth of a second was “constitutive of modernity” (p. ix). In her view, what scientists discovered “happens within these short, fugitive moments” (p. ix)—the passage of a planet across the sun, reaction to stimulus, fugitive movements of limbs (think of the photography of Étienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge)—became fundamental to modern approaches to time and matter. The book is an extraordinary example of multidisciplinary inquiry; it relies on sources from a range of national archives, in particular French ones. What is more, it is wonderfully composed and delightfully illustrated. A Tenth of a Second is suitable for upper-level undergraduate classes in the history of science and would enhance a range of graduate reading lists, especially ones concerning modernity, the history of science, and the history of photography. Canales should be congratulated for rescuing a tenth of a second from basketball arenas and racetracks; she has shown that its scholarly significance is quite simply astonishing.
Alexis McCrossen, associate professor of history at Southern Methodist University, has recently published “The ‘Very Delicate Construction’ of Pocket Watches and Time Consciousness in the Nineteenth-Century United States,” Winterthur Portfolio 44 (spring 2010): 1–30.
The Speed Handbook: Velocity, Pleasure, Modernism. By Enda Duffy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. 306. $84.95/$23.95.
In The Speed Handbook, Enda Duffy offers a history of the cultural meaning of speed during the formative years of the automobile revolution. Her argument is threefold: first, that “speed is the single new pleasure invented by modernity” (p. 3); second, that the emergence of the automobile as a mass phenomenon after 1900 placed this new pleasure at the disposal— more accurately, under the control—of individuals for the first time; and third, that a cultural history of the pleasure of individual automotive speed is best approached through an analysis of the high- and lowbrow art and literature of the period. By the end of the nineteenth century, with the Scramble for Africa reaching its conclusion and the map of the world rapidly shedding the last of its unexplored voids, Westerners reluctantly confronted the fact that