Scientific Brilliance in the Form of Art

Michael Hogan

Is physics art? Is art physics? Well, when Harold Edgerton got his hands on a camera, physics became art. I’m sure most of us have seen his photographs, (a milk drop coronet, a bullet blasting through an apple) after all, they appear in most science textbooks. But how many of us know anything about the man behind them? Well, now is the time to find out. The MIT Museum is featuring an exhibit on Edgerton called Flashes of Inspiration: The Work of Harold Edgerton.

Harold Edgerton was better known to his students at MIT as “Doc”, but he is known to the photography world as an innovator and a pioneer. Edgerton’s historic photographs, his cameras, and his research notebooks offer an inside look into a man who helped to open new worlds in both photography and science at the same time. Using the electronic stroboscope, (a device he helped to develop that makes a cyclically moving object appear to be moving in slow motion) Edgerton was able to make the previously unseen, visible. Thanks to Edgerton’s photography scientists know and have seen what happens when liquid drops, a golfer swings a club, or water runs out of a faucet. Some of his innovations, particularly those in aerial night photography, have made immeasurable contributions to more than just art and science, but to mankind as a whole. His work in aerial night photography was influential to the success of the invasion of Normandy in World War 2. During the Cold War years Edgerton developed a way to document nuclear explosions.

During his lifetime Edgerton worked on under sea photography with Jacques Cousteau, the seminal explorer of the world’s oceans. He has photographed Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, the acrobats of the Moscow Circus, as well as tennis and golf stars. Edgerton worked closely with world renowned photographer Gjon Mili, who created pieces of art from the movements of dancers, athletes, and actors. Using the stroboscope that Edgerton developed, Gjon was able to capture the beauty and grace of human movement and present it to the world. More than the masterpieces that Edgerton created in his lifetime, this exhibit is the story of the man behind those masterpieces. It is this that makes Flashes of Inspiration: The Work of Harold Edgerton a must-visit for anyone interested in science or art.

So head on over to MIT and check out a man you probably know nothing about. A man who helped to change and illuminate the world around us in so many ways. The MIT Museum is located at 265 Massachusetts Ave, Cambridge.