Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Jimena Canales' "A Tenth of a Second"

Jimena Canales is associate professor of the history of science at Harvard University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, A Tenth of a Second: A History, and reported the following:
Page 99 contains an image. Under a vaulted ceiling, men in black coats and top hats stand in line to look through an instrument. The men are astronomers, the instrument is a telescope. It is 1874. The astronomers at the Paris Observatory aim their machine not at the sky, but at the Senate, a few miles away, housing an artificial planet and bright star driven by clockwork. They have recently noticed that they cannot adequately time the exact moment when Venus makes an apparent contact with the sun’s border. Their determinations differ by amounts close to a tenth of a second. This error, which may seem tiny from our perspective, had enormous repercussions for astronomy. They tried hard to eliminate tenth-of-a-second errors, employing telegraphy and pioneering pre-cinematographic methods. Astronomers were not the only scientists stumped by the tenth of a second: physicists, psychologists, physiologists and philosophers were equally mystified.

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.

Tracing debates about the nature of time, causality, and free will, as well as the introduction of technologies that helped define modernity, I attempt to locate 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. Featuring appearances by Henri Bergson, Walter Benjamin, and Albert Einstein, among others, my book explores ways of writing the history of really, really short periods of time. To find out what the book is about you can read page 99, or simply look at the picture, or—if really pressed for time—close your eyes for a moment and try to grasp the tenth of a second that just flew by.
Read more about A Tenth of a Second at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue