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Letter from the Chair

Jimena Canales

Professor of History

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Areas of Specialization

History of Science

Biography

Jimena Canales is the Thomas M. Siebel Chair in the History of Science and the author of numerous scholarly and journalistic texts on the history of modernity, focusing primarily on science and technology.

She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of Science. Her first book, A Tenth of a Second (hardcover, paperback, kindle), exploring the relation between science and history as one of the central intellectual problems of modern times, has been widely reviewed and acclaimed. Her second book, The Physicist and The Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time has been recently published by Princeton University Press.

Canales' work on the history of science had been published in Isis, Science in Context, History of Science, the British Journal for the History of Science, and the MLN, among others; topics on visual, film and media studies have appeared in Architectural History, Journal of Visual Culture, Thresholds, Aperture, Artforum and WiRED magazine.

Canales was awarded the “Prize for Young Scholars” of the International Union of the History and Philosophy of Science, and has lectured widely nationally and internationally, presenting her work in the BBC, Juan March Institute and the Centre Georges Pompidou. She was previously an Associate Professor in History of Science at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at the IKKM (Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie) in Germany. She was a recipient of the Charles A. Ryskamp Award from the ACLS (American Council of Learned Societies) in 2013-2014.

Just out from The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/albert-einsteins-sci-fi-stories

Just out from Nautilus: http://nautil.us/issue/35/boundaries/this-philosopher-helped-ensure-there-was-no-nobel-for-relativity 

    VOTED Best Science Books for 2015.

Praise for THE PHYSICIST AND THE PHILOSOPHER:

"Whether readers side with Einstein’s physics or Bergson’s philosophy isn’t the most important thing: this book opens up new ways of thinking about the relationship between science and the humanities that unsettle both."--Gerald Holton, Harvard University

"This exciting, hugely interesting book opens out from a short but  critical encounter between the philosopher Henri Bergson and the physicist Albert Einstein to consider their philosophies and the effects of their argument on the modern idea of time. Canales turns what is at first sight a limited debate into a major transatlantic encounter of profound implications. Well-researched, well-argued, and elegant, The Physicist and the Philosopher is a first-rate work of scholarship."--Stefanos Geroulanos, New York University

"The Physicist and the Philosopher is a lively and engaging account of the meaning of time in the twentieth century. Canales uses the 1922 debate between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson as a starting point from which to discuss an astonishing array of thinkers, technologies, and cultural developments. The book is an innovative, rich, and almost encyclopedic exploration of a crucially important question."--Edward Baring, author of The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945–1968

"Like a stone cast on still waters, the Einstein-Bergson debate on the nature of time set off ever-widening ripples in physics and philosophy, but also in art, politics, and religion. In this fascinating book, Canales has written a kind of alternative intellectual history of the interwar decades of the twentieth century, one full of color and improbable conjunctions of people and ideas."--Lorraine Daston, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin

"Is time too important to be left to the physicists and their measuring devices? That was the issue at stake in a 1922 debate between Albert Einstein and philosopher Henri Bergson, celebrated at the time and wonderfully recovered in Jimena Canales’s new book. A fascinating look at a pivotal moment in how we think about one of the most fundamental features of the universe."--Sean Carroll, author of From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time

"Sometimes past battles have repercussions that resonate long after memories have faded. In dramatic fashion, Jimena Canales demonstrates how a seemingly forgotten debate between Einstein and Bergson about the enigma of time changed the course of intellectual history."--Palle Yourgrau, Brandeis University

Praise for A Tenth of A Second:

“The book is an extraordinary example of multidisciplinary inquiry. . . . What is more, it is wonderfully composed and delightfully illustrated. . . . 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.”Technology and Culture

“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.” Jonathan Crary, Columbia University

“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 thisother dimension of time, that of the new history of science that physicists as well as philosophers tend so easily to forget.” Bruno Latour, Institut d'études politiques de Paris

“An extraordinary example of multidisciplinary inquiry … 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.”–McCrossen, Alexis. “Review” Technology and Culture Vol 52, (2011), pp. 212-213.

““We live in a tenth-of-a-second world,” Thomas Edison’s electrical engineer Arthur Kennelly mused. That unit is roughly human reaction time and, as measurement technologies improved, this bodily lag from stimulus to response became a vexing matter of observational interference. Jimena Canales ably shows it was brought to a head by astronomers recording the transit of Venus in 1874: precisely timing anything through an eyepiece was bedevilled by human error. …a thoughtful look at the all-too-human perceptual complications facing objective observation.”–Collins, Paul. “Tick tock,” New Scientist (24 October 2009) Issue 2731, p. 49.

“An ambitious and complex story of techno-physiological modernity as told through the lens of one such modern man/machine- effect: reaction time. Or, in more dramatic terms, the story it tells revolves around that epistemologically worrisome exposure of the non-instantaneity of cognition, its ineluctable ‘temporality’… What is more, Canales is making good use of it, somewhat reminiscent of the biography-of-a-scientific-object literature, in order to bring together a range of indisputably crucial scenes and figures in matters of Modernity—some of them familiar, others less so. Covering a period roughly from 1800 into the 1920s, in its six highly readable chapters,

A Tenth of a Second thus moves elegantly across pertinent developments in the realms of physics, psychology and physiology, weaving, along the way, a number of narrative threads between them—not to mention the multitude of cross-references to the history of photography, cinema, and the philosophy of science; precision instruments (or metrology) naturally loom large in this story of ‘micro-temporality’, as do such all-time favorites as Hermann von Helmholtz, Étienne-Jules Marey, and Henri Bergson.

A Tenth of a Second is … unusually well crafted and intelligent”–Max Stadler, Aestimatio 9 (2012): 374–381.

“Canales’s central argument is that microtime underpinned a multitude of scientific and cultural phenomena, and a great strength of her book is the careful, nuanced exploration of these moments of emergence and the seemingly endless debates they generated. The history she reveals is complex and surprising.

This is a rich and fascinating study, which carries Canales into all kinds of interesting areas. A Tenth of a Second, like the earlier work of Jonathan Crary, has revealed hidden dimensions to the histories of science, perception, and psychology. With its sophisticated, cross-disciplinary focus, A Tenth of a Second deserves the widest possible readership.”–Otter, Chris. Victorian Studies Vol 54, (2012), pp. 314-316.

“This scintillating book recounts a nearly century-long obsession with the ‘sacred 0.1 seconds’, from around 1850 to the eve of the Second World War.

Canales examines debates over relativity from the vantage point of this history, opening some remarkable new vistas on well-trodden historical terrain.

Canales’ history of the tenth of a second makes a major contribution to this project. She shows how Baudelaire’s oft-cited notion of modernity – the ‘ephemeral, fleeting, the contingent’, which nevertheless recaptured ‘something eternal’- echoed the scientists’ quest to find a stable natural constant in a dynamic and evanescent world.

It should – at least for a moment – set a new historiographic standard for many to follow.”–Brain, Robert. “Review,” Centaurus Vol. 52, Issue 4, (2011), pp. 353-355.

“A Tenth of a Second is an example of the new urbanism: a multi-function building, like several recently erected on my campus, with retail shops and cafés on the ground floor, classrooms or computer labs just above, and dormitory space on the upper levels. The multiple uses are meant to encourage vibrancy in the surrounding neighborhood, but also to maximize the use of space. Canales explores how a single concept functioned in several different scientific and cultural discourses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Is this a history of astronomy, physics, physiology, or psychology? All of the above. The prose is efficient, yet full of colorful detail.”–Beyler, Richard H. “Three Ways to Spend Some Time in the Historiographical Metropolis,” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences Vol 41, (2012), pp. 354-364.

“Recommend most readily this fascinating study of an intellectual entity that bound together a wide range of nineteenth and twentieth- century sciences.”—Lawrence, Christopher. Annals of Science, Volume 70, Issue 1, 2013, pp. 122-123.

“The author’s style, while scholarly, is fluid, making successive arguments logical and reasonable and, of all things unexpected, entertaining.  … a crisp, well argued style makes the reading highly informative and enjoyable. I read the book at one sitting. It retained my interest throughout that time and I recommend it without reservation.”–Ian Lipke, M/C Reviews

“In this significant contribution to the cultural history of time, Jimena Canales follows the career of the tenth of a second in astronomy, physiology, psychology, art and technology, physics, and philosophy from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century. Her book is a wide-ranging and thoroughly researched study, based on an impressive range of published and archival sources.

… a splendid book. … A Tenth of a Second deserves a wide readership.”–Arabatzis, Theodore. ISIS: Journal of the History of Science in Society Vol 72, (2012), pp. 774-775.

Research Description

  • Research Statement by Jimena Canales

    How do we know? What do we know? How is authoritative knowledge established? How are key scientific theories from the most abstract (such as the theory of relativity) to the broadest (such as thermodynamics) connected to our daily lives and common experiences? My work seeks to understand the connection between technology, everyday environments, practical routines, intimate feelings, and grand metaphysical frameworks across different historical eras and scientific fields. It speaks to academic disciplines beyond the history of science and technology, including film and media studies, visual studies, and art and architecture history. My focus is not on a simple recounting of important dates, events or scientific topics, but rather an exploration of what science, technology and history are, and how they relate to each other.

    Einstein and Bergson

    My latest book, The Physicist and the Philosopher, analyzes a debate between the physicist Albert Einstein and the philosopher Henri Bergson that took place in Paris, 1922. It focuses on one of the most important intellectual discussions of the twentieth century through the perspective of science and technology studies. The divisions between the two main characters of this debate, Einstein and Bergson, arose in direct connection to different ways of experiencing, using and thinking about media. Everyday technologies—from clocks to radio to cinematographic cameras—were essential for understanding one of the most important intellectual divisions of the twentieth century.

    The focus on Einstein and Bergson as a pair provides the missing piece of various puzzles that have haunted intellectual histories focusing individually on Einstein or Bergson. For example, numerous historians have remarked on the rift between “Analytic” and “Continental” philosophy that occurred from the middle of the twentieth century onward, yet they often disagree about what drove this split. The Physicist and the Philosopher argues that the conflict between Einstein and Bergson played an essential role in creating this division. Historians of physics have been generally puzzled by why certain prominent scientists who worked on the theory of relativity, such as the mathematician and philosopher Henri Poincaré, remained at times silent or at other times outright hostile to Einstein’s work. My book argues that this conflict needs to be understood in terms of the influence of Bergson’s philosophy on these scientists.

    The debate between Bergson and Einstein elucidates other important splits in intellectual life and in the scientific community during the twentieth century, for example, that between the mathematician and philosopher Alfred N. Whitehead's and his colleague Bertrand Russell, between the philosophers Ernst Cassirer and Martin Heidegger, and between the sciences and the humanities more generally. We can make better sense of these rifts, and start to mend them, when we put the piece of the puzzle of Einstein and Bergson in relation to each other back in.

    Major schools of twentieth-century thought, ranging from phenomenology to American pragmatism, were conceived with the explicit purpose of moving beyond the impasse represented by Einstein and Bergson. When Heidegger penned his monumental Being and Time, he explicitly conceived it as an alternative to how Einstein and Bergson had thought of time; When the American philosopher George Herbert Mead explained the purpose of Pragmatism, he explicitly mentioned that it should mend the opposing points of view associated with Einstein and Bergson; When Maurice Merleau-Ponty described the purpose of phenomenology, he conceived it as a reevaluation of Bergson’s philosophy in light of the success of Einstein’s work. When the physicist Herbert Dingle, a defender of Bergson with serious misgivings about Einstein’s work, founded the British Society for the History of Science, he conceived it as an institution for promoting the understanding of the philosophical underpinnings of scientific pursuits.

    A Tenth of a Second

    My recent book A Tenth of a Second: A History makes a methodological and historical contribution by asking readers to consider what happens within that short period of time. How do we obtain knowledge of events that are too fast to be perceived? Considerable attention has gone into studying the telescope and microscope, but what happens when we expand these investigations to study other time periods? As scientists from the 1850s onwards employed new instruments and techniques to measure tenth of a second and shorter moments of time, they inaugurated a new way of understanding the relation between history, science and technology that has characterized much of our culture since then. A Tenth of a Second has been widely received by a diverse readership ranging from scientists to general historians and reviewed in a number of journals. It argues that we cannot take this unit for granted—and the related understanding of historical time as a summation of these units—without analyzing a century-long effort to demystify this moment by measuring it precisely and visualizing what occurred within it.

    By revealing the detailed story of scientists’ efforts to measure short moments of time, my aim is to make readers aware that certain tenets of modern times, which are usually unquestioned and taken for granted, are in fact contingent and dependent on a wide array of ancillary factors (that are usually discounted). One of these tenets is the idea that mental phenomena can be measured with precision. This idea, central to the discipline of experimental psychology, went against Kant’s philosophy of mind. But a new generation of post-Kantian researchers considered reaction-time measurement as the “crucial experiment” proving the contrary. The tenth of a second shows how the idea that the speed of thought is measurable; that scientific instruments are essential for obtaining precision; that our involvement with the world occurs in terms of stimuli, transmission, reaction and response; and that human subjectivity can be understood in terms of reaction time, personality and intelligence are all tightly connected. These conceptions appeared at the same time that apparently minor techniques and practices associated with a new set of instruments (including photography, telegraphy and cinematography) and new forms of communications became increasingly prevalent in modern societies. They arose together with specific infrastructures that directed fingers and eyes in new directions. Seemingly minor changes are connected to broader metaphysical conceptions pertaining to divisions between matter and life, objectivity and subjectivity, science and non-science.

Publications

Books

  • Canales, Jimena. The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time. . 2015.
  • Canales, Jimena. A Tenth of a Second. . Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2009.

Publication Photo Publication Photo

Book Contributions

Journal Articles

  • "Dead and Alive: Micro-Cinematography between Physics and Biology." Configurations 23.2 (2015): 235-251.
  • "Einstein's Discourse Networks." Zeitschrift für Medien- und Kulturforschung (2015): 11-39.
  • "The Media of Relativity: Einstein and Telecommunications Technologies." Technology and Culture 56.3 (2015): 610-645.
  • "Little Helpers. About Demons, Angels and Other Servants." Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 37 (2012): 314-331.
  • "A Science of Signals: Einstein, Inertia, and the Postal System." Thresholds 39 (2011): 12-25.
  • "Desired Machines: Cinema and the World in its Own Image." Science in Context 24 (2011): 329-359.
  • "Guerras de la Ciencia? Einstein, Bergson y Heidegger: Un Debate Científico y Filosófico." Revista de Occidente (2010): 71-90.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Sensational Differences: The Case of the Transit of Venus." Cahiers François Viète 11-12 (2007): 15-40.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Movement before Cinematography: The High-Speed Qualities of Sentiment." Journal of Visual Culture 5 (2006): 275-294.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Criminal Skins: Tattoos and Modern Architecture in the work of Adolf Loos." Architectural History: Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain 48 (2005): 235-256.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Einstein, Bergson, and the Experiment that Failed: Intellectual Cooperation at the League of Nations." MLN 120 (2005): 1168-1191.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Photogenic Venus: The ‘Cinematographic Turn’ in Science and its Alternatives." Isis 93 (2002): 585-613.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Exit the Frog, Enter the Human: Astronomy, Physiology and Experimental Psychology in the Nineteenth Century." British Journal for the History of Science 34 (2001): 173-197.
  • Canales, Jimena. "The Single Eye: Reevaluating Ancien Régime Science." History of Science 39 (2001): 71-94.

Special Issues of a Journal

  • Canales, Jimena. "Presentación de La Guerra del Tiempo: Einstein, Bergson y Poincaré." Un Debate Científico y Filosófico. Spec. iss. of Revista de Occidente (2010):

Newspaper Articles

  • Canales, Jimena. "Pieles Criminales." ABCD: Las Artes y las Letras. 13 Sep. 2008.
  • Canales, Jimena. "El Duelo del Tiempo." ABCD: Las Artes y las Letras. 16 Jan. 2010.

Magazine Articles

  • Canales, Jimena. "Living Color: Jimena Canales on the Art of Eliot Porter." Artforum. 1 Sep. 2014: 334-341.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Ornamento y Crimen: Tatuajes, Antropología Criminal, y Arquitectura Moderna." Celeste. 1 Oct. 2001: 30-32.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Las Ficciones de Einstein." Investigación y Ciencia. 1 Jun. 2014: 50-51.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Harold E. ‘Doc’ Edgerton: "Doc" and his Laboratory Notebooks." Aperture. 1 Jun. 2013: 72-73.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Putting Facts in their Proper Place." The Matter of Fact 2.0 Exhibition Catalog Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. 1 Jun. 2009.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Introduction." The Matter of Fact 1.0 Exhibition Catalog Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. 1 Jun. 2008.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Cultures of Astronomy." Time, Life and Matter Exhibition Catalog Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments. 1 Jun. 2007.
  • "Temporal Reordering." The Wired World in 2015. 1 Jan. 2015: 39.

Website Articles

Reviews

  • Canales, Jimena. "Caught in Plain Sight: The Subject in Hiding." Rev. of Hide and SeekEndeavour (2014):
  • Rev. of Loving Faster Than Light: Romance and Readers in Einstein’s UniverseEndeavour (2013):
  • Canales, Jimena. Rev. of British University Observatories 1772- 1932Victorian Studies (2010):
  • Rev. of The Victorian Eye: A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800–1910British Journal for the History of Science 42 (2009): 305-306.
  • Canales, Jimena. "Rehabilitating Janssen." Rev. of Un Globe- Trotter de la Physique Céleste: L’Astronome Jules JansseJournal for the History of Astronomy 40 (2009): 233-235.
  • Rev. of The Claude Glass: Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western ArtIsis (2006): 149-150.