Your mistakes are as valuable as your successes

Certain MIT grads have received unpleasant scrutiny of late, so it’s nice to turn attention to an Institute fixture whom everyone liked: Dr. Harold Edgerton, inventor of high-speed flash photography and many other electronic marvels. Pittsburgh-area residents have a few more days to see some of his classic photographs in person, at the Silver Eye Gallery exhibit, “Seeing the Unseen: Photographs by Dr. Harold Edgerton.”

As an undergraduate, I had the good fortune to take Strobe Lab (course 6.163 in MIT-speak). Dr. Edgerton didn’t teach the course: by then he was Professor Emeritus. But he was a real presence, stopping by the darkroom and labs along Strobe Alley and attending Institute events frequently. My parents met him during one visit — in place of business cards, he handed out postcards with his Milk Drop Coronet on the front. And he was in the class photo, which of course was taken in the dark with a flash. (I think we’re all laughing because Doc Edgerton cracked a joke. Here’s an annotated version of the photo.)

I never knew what to say to him. Here was this amazing innovator, someone who’d recognized what others hadn’t and found ways to engineer solutions, and who was I? A spoiled kid following the steps of the lab exercises, like making recipes from a cookbook. I couldn’t imagine what he thought, watching me and the rest of the students mimic his ground-breaking discoveries … and fail sometimes to produce anything as interesting or beautiful as what he’d created. Yet he was unfailingly patient and nice, and perpetually wore an amused expression and an air of wanting someone — any of us — to surprise him.

In fact, the lab was a very good class; I’m sure it still is. Despite my lack of aptitude for solving equations — and despite nearly shooting my boyfriend when recreating the bullet/soundwave experiments — I’m sure I soaked up at least a little sense of lab procedure. And given that I took the class to fulfill the Institute-wide lab requirement, I suppose that was the main point.

One other big thing I got out of the course was a small collection of photographs that my lab partners and I took: tiny milk drop crowns, swinging golfclubs, bullets shooting through chalk and balloons. As un-innovative as they may be in the grand scheme, I find I’m quite proud of them.

You can see a few if you click the link below.

Taking a picture of a flying bullet isn’t so hard. What’s tricky is shooting through the playing card sideways.

Then again, a bullet does move quite quickly when it’s shot from a rifle. We had lots of these pictures, with exploded chalk and no bullet.

The thing holding the cards and pieces of chalk was a standard-issue chalkboard eraser. Perfect for this application: stable and adjustable, and never flinched when the gun went off.

(In case you are questioning the wisdom of handing a full-fledged, loaded rifle to a bunch of undergraduates: The gun was bolted onto two sawhorses. To aim, you moved the sawhorses. The tricky thing was that the experiment, and therefore the shooting of the gun, happens in the dark — the sound wave from the bullet triggers the flash via a little microphone and some electronics I never understood. So the lab team needs a clear protocol to ensure everyone has cleared out of the bullet’s general target area before the trigger is fired. And it turns out that the whole team becomes a little tense if anyone, particularly the trigger person, fails to observe the protocol, even if it was an accident and the trigger person just sort of drifted off for a moment and squeezed the trigger without meaning to. Which tension is, of course, quite reasonable.)

Using a slightly different photography technique, you can photograph the sound waves of the bullet and of the reverberations of the thing it hit (in this case, a playing card turned to face the gun).

My lab notebook, each page dated and signed, with the contact sheet of our milk drop photos taped in.

My favorite of our milk drop coronet photos.

Changing gears here…

If I may differ a bit from the write-up from the Silver Eye:

Although the intent behind Edgerton