Beauty in Odd Places

This weekend I found beauty in an exploding apple and a walking artichoke petal.

Allow me to explain:  This weekend, I went to the MIT Museum for the first time and was pleasantly surprised to find the marriage of science and art on display in more than one corner.  I’m talking particularly about the Harold “Doc” Edgerton and Arthur Ganson exhibitions.  These men use(d) their engineering abilities to create an aesthetic—Edgerton, the aesthetic of stop-action photographs, dynamic and immediate and elucidating; and Ganson, the aesthetic of complex machines that propel some random object into simple motion in order to suggest some philosophical truth or, at the very least, to make the viewer feel something.

Edgerton, who taught electrical engineering at MIT from 1948 to 1977, created stunning photos using an electronic strobe light stroboscope, which he invented in 1931.  By hooking up an ordinary motion-picture camera to his stroboscope, Edgerton created an ultra-high-speed camera that was able to produce still photographs of split-second occurrences, like a bullet slicing through an apple, or a milk droplet falling into a dish, or a balloon bursting.  With each strobe light flash, exactly one frame of film was exposed.  The number of flashes per second—which could be as many as 2,000—determined the number of pictures taken.

Sometimes Edgerton chose to make several exposures on a single negative (instead of one exposure per frame, as is typical), the result of which was a series of overlapping images appearing in one photo.








To see Edgerton demonstrate his strobe-flash photography technique, check out the 10-minute documentary Quicker ‘n a Wink (a 1941 Academy Award winner!).

Among other things, the short demonstrates, through the use of slow-motion video, that…

  • Cats lap milk by curling their tongues down.  They bring the milk to their mouths with the underside of their tongues.
  • A bubble doesn’t pop immediately when punctured.  Rather, the object with which it comes into contact (be it a pin, a finger, a pencil, etc.) penetrates almost all the way to the other side of the bubble before the bubble actually breaks.
  • Hummingbirds flap their wings an average of 70 times per second.
  • Every droplet falls in pairs—a big droplet followed by a smaller one—and creates a coronet, or crown, upon landing in a liquid-filled dish.

Each of Edgerton’s photos represents an infinitesimal slice of action, a frozen millisecond of time.  Edgerton combines certain elements of physics—matter, space, time, energy, force—and with them creates a sort of poetry, beautiful in its precision.

Arthur Ganson’s poetry is of a different sort.  A more humorously puzzling sort.  Ganson describes himself as a cross between a mechanical engineer and a choreographer.  He takes various metals and assembles them into a (usually) viewer-activated mechanical system.  The focal point of each contraption is some random object, one likely to be found in an attic or a trash bin, such as a wishbone, an artichoke petal, paper scraps, a baby doll, a Chinese fan, or a feather, which moves slowly and methodically for a period of time, until the viewer cranks the handle again.  I was attracted to these machines for their oddity.  They are playful, but in a wry sense.  Some of them I didn’t really get, but others transfixed me.

Like his Machine with Ball Chain

… Kind of beautiful and disgusting at the same time, but mesmerizing nonetheless.  The idea is simple:  an endless looping; a string of beads being sucked into a tube and then regurgitated, sucked in, regurgitated, and so on.  But the movement of the metal slop has a certain power.

I also enjoyed Ganson’s Machine with Artichoke Petal:

The petal moves so slowly, so tragically, in Sisyphean fashion.  He’s a character right out of Camus, traipsing about a cold and silent universe, resigned to the Absurd.  This sculpture shouts, “Life is meaningless!”  Although I can’t agree with the sculpture’s message, I can appreciate the creativity with which it is expressed and the beauty of the petal’s movement.

Here’s one last sculpture, called Cory’s Yellow Chair (to see it in the light and from a different viewpoint, click here):

Ganson’s exhibition at the MIT Museum is titled Gestural Engineering, suggesting that the works on display are nonverbal expressions of ideas and sentiments.  Motion is the key player here; in kinetic art, it is first and foremost the motion that is on display.  As an engineer, Ganson designs and builds machines; as a choreographer, he arranges and directs the movements of the machine’s parts to create a special dance that communicates meaning.  Are these two functions really that different?

My overall reaction to the MIT Museum, believe it or not, has nothing to do with the cutting-edge research projects currently underway at the institute, projects that are prominently displayed across both floors of the museum.  Rather, I left primarily with a powerful conviction that motion—whether frozen in an Edgerton shot, or generated by a Ganson machine—is beauty.  And science, in a way, is (or can be) art.

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