Metastable Demons

“There is no reason to suppose that metastable demons do not in fact exist.” – Norbert Wiener, Cybernetics (1948).

Join us for a lecture by Jimena Canales on mechanization and intelligence.

Metastable Demons: The Otherworldly Operators of the 20th Century

Wednesday, March 7, 2017, 1 pm at 228 Battelle-Tompkins Hall

“There is no reason to suppose that metastable demons do not in fact exist,” explained the mathematician Norbert Wiener in Cybernetics (1948). Wiener referred to a new class of hybrid actants that were increasingly all around us, even in our homes. They could be living or mechanical, human or not, two distinctions that increasingly did not matter to him. Their unifying characteristic was their ability to reverse entropy, albeit momentarily and locally. Instead of focusing on the “can’t do” aspects of thermodynamics, a number of scientists became concerned with temporary exceptions to it, that is, by “negative entropy.” Metastable demons appeared in feedback mechanisms, photosynthesis, viruses, enzymes, genes, and even in some self-organizing crystals like snowflakes. Canales’ talk will focus on mid-twentieth-century demons in relation to physics, computing, and information theory to explore key changes in our understanding of life, mechanization and intelligence

About our speaker

Jimena Canales is an award-winning author and scholar focusing on science in the modern world. She received an M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in the History of Science and a BSc in Engineering Physics from the Tecnológico de Monterrey. Her first book, A Tenth of a Second: A History  explored the relation between science and history as one of the central intellectual problems of modern times. Her second book, The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time, is now available. Her scholarly work on the history of science has been published in Isis, Science in Context, History of Science, the British Journal for the History of Science, and the MLN, among others. Her work on visual, film and media studies has appeared in Architectural History, Journal of Visual Culture, Thresholds. She writes for general readers publishing in Aperture, Artforum, WIRED, Nautilus, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

Canales is currently a faculty member of the Graduate College at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a Research Affiliate at MIT (2017-2018). She was previously the Thomas M. Siebel Professor for the History of Science at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, an Associate Professor at Harvard University, and senior fellow at the IKKM (Internationales Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie) in Germany. Canales received the “Prize for Young Scholars” of the International Union of History and Philosophy of Science, Division of History of Science and Technology. She has been a visitor at various universities and research centers including the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, MIT,  the Princeton-Weimar Summer School of Media Studies at Princeton University and has lectured widely nationally and internationally, presenting her work at the BBC,  the Musée Georges Pompidou, and the 11th Shanghai Biennale.


Check out some of Jimena Canales’ books below. Also, check out her website for more information about her publications. 

On April 6, 1922, in Paris, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson publicly debated the nature of time. Einstein considered Bergson’s theory of time to be a soft, psychological notion, irreconcilable with the quantitative realities of physics. Bergson, who gained fame as a philosopher by arguing that time should not be understood exclusively through the lens of science, criticized Einstein’s theory of time for being a metaphysics grafted on to science, one that ignored the intuitive aspects of time. The Physicist and the Philosopher tells the remarkable story of how this explosive debate transformed our understanding of time and drove a rift between science and the humanities that persists today.

Jimena Canales introduces readers to the revolutionary ideas of Einstein and Bergson, describes how they dramatically collided in Paris, and traces how this clash of worldviews reverberated across the twentieth century. She shows how it provoked responses from figures such as Bertrand Russell and Martin Heidegger, and carried repercussions for American pragmatism, logical positivism, phenomenology, and quantum mechanics. Canales explains how the new technologies of the period―such as wristwatches, radio, and film―helped to shape people’s conceptions of time and further polarized the public debate. She also discusses how Bergson and Einstein, toward the end of their lives, each reflected on his rival’s legacy―Bergson during the Nazi occupation of Paris and Einstein in the context of the first hydrogen bomb explosion.

The Physicist and the Philosopher is a magisterial and revealing account that shows how scientific truth was placed on trial in a divided century marked by a new sense of time.



In the late fifteenth century, clocks acquired minute hands. A century later, second hands appeared. But it wasn’t until the 1850s that instruments could recognize a tenth of a second, and, once they did, the impact on modern science and society was profound. Revealing the history behind this infinitesimal interval, A Tenth of a Second sheds new light on modernity and illuminates the work of important thinkers of the last two centuries.

Tracing debates about the nature of time, causality, and free will, as well as the introduction of modern technologies—telegraphy, photography, cinematography—Jimena Canales locates the reverberations of this “perceptual moment” throughout culture. Once scientists associated the tenth of a second with the speed of thought, they developed reaction time experiments with lasting implications for experimental psychology, physiology, and optics. Astronomers and physicists struggled to control the profound consequences of results that were a tenth of a second off. And references to the interval were part of a general inquiry into time, consciousness, and sensory experience that involved rethinking the contributions of Descartes and Kant.

Considering its impact on much longer time periods 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.