Harold E. Edgerton, Seeking Facts

August 6 through December 22, 2013
Education Hallway

Five works depict a variety of natural phenomenon invisible to the human eye, yet real nonetheless. Accompanying the exhibition is commentary by Oberlin professors in the natural sciences and mathematics.

Marcelo Vinces, director of Oberlin’s Center for Learning, Education, and Research in the Sciences (CLEAR), wrote:

Harold E. Edgerton, the legendary electrical engineer and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), started his path in scientific and photographic investigations simultaneously. As a boy in Lincoln, Nebraska, Edgerton set off to build a searchlight with a lamp and a tin can, and stumbled upon the optical principle that kept him from creating the tight beam of light he desired. At such an early age, Edgerton demonstrated that playfulness and determination drives engineers, scientists, and artists alike. Edgerton could be said to have been all three. He protested against the latter characterization, but whether he meant it or not, his works do constitute a gateway between art and science, in which the boundaries are blurred, as are the finer distinctions between scientific disciplines. His works, now part of our collective visual consciousness, reveal the unseen, a goal ever present in both the scientific and artistic realms of inquiry.

Half a century later, Edgerton’s techniques continue to reveal the unseen in everyday life. In 1940 he had pondered the question of how a cat laps up milk. He filmed a cat drinking, revealing that they do not use their tongues as ladles, but rather, curl the tips of their tongue backwards, so that the top surface of the tongue and not the tip touches the liquid. In 2011, new work by others at MIT employing high-speed imaging further revealed that only the surface of the tongue touches the surface of the liquid. The cat draws the liquid when it sticks to the tongue, and the tongue is withdrawn fast enough for inertia to overcome gravity, thus forming a column of liquid into the cat’s mouth. Edgerton’s legacy continues to reveal.

Organized by AMAM Curatorial Assistant Lucas Briffa (OC ’12).

Harold E. Edgerton (American, 1903-1990)
Bullet Through an Apple, 1964
Dye transfer print
Gift of the Harold and Esther Edgerton Family Foundation, 1996.15.11