Images of Discovery: Seeing Science in New Ways

“Wherever you look in science”, says MIT Museum Director John Durant, “you see the historical importance of finding new ways of visualizing things, leading to greater understanding of the world. From Galileo’s use of his own hand-built telescope to explain the movements of the earth and other planets, to the latest imaging technologies in everything from nanotechnology to neuroscience, the making of images remains central to our ability to make new discoveries.”

Images of Discovery: Communicating Science through Photography at the MIT Museum focuses on the work of three distinguished photographers: Harold “Doc” Edgerton, Berenice Abbott and  Felice Frankel. In the spirit of their work, the exhibit includes image-making stations that allow visitors to experience the ways in which image making informs the worlds of science and technology. According to Durant, “we wanted to give our visitors the opportunity to work with some of the same instruments that have been used by our three featured image makers. In total there are six image making stations, each of which provides users with the opportunity to see the unseen, and to share what they’ve seen with others.” The stations allow users to upload their photographs directly to the MIT Museum Flickr page, and a selection of visitors’ photography is displayed on screens within the exhibition.

Perhaps best known by the general public for the iconic Milk Drop photograph and his work with strobe photography, Harold “Doc” Edgerton blurred the distinction between artist and engineer. Harold “Doc” Edgerton (1903 – 1990) was named MIT Institute Professor in 1966 after a distinguished career as an inventor, photographer and professor of Electrical Engineering at MIT. His many achievements in the field of stroboscopy were applied to a range of fields, from the military to archeology and underwater exploration.

Edgerton’s methodological innovations were influential for the renowned portrait photographer Berenice Abbott (1898–1991). Best known as a 20th-century documentary photographer, Abbott worked as a dark room assistant to Man Ray in Paris in the 1920’s before striking out on her own.   She spent several years at MIT in the late 1950’s, where she worked with scientists to create imagery for the Physical Sciences Study Committee (PSSC). As staff photographer for the PSSC, she helped devise a new physics curriculum for high school students meant to deepen and strengthen American scientific knowledge. While her images documented principles of physical science, her innovative techniques advanced the field of photography. Her experiments with ways of capturing wave patterns helped MIT scientists to further their understanding of natural phenomena, and “Water Waves in a Ripple Tank,” one of the image making stations within the exhibition, allows visitors to create their own version of Abbott’s wave image.

Today, Felice Frankel continues this MIT tradition of experimenting with new techniques of image making that contributes directly both to scientific research and to the communication of research to wider audiences. Internationally renowned, not least through works such as Envisioning Science: The Design and Craft of the Science Image (2004), and Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists and Engineers (2012), Frankel continues to demonstrate the indispensability of images and image making to path-breaking research.

Images of Discovery: Communicating Science through Photography is on view at the MIT Museum from February 14, 2015 – February 28, 2016.

Posted on May 26, 2015 by Sharon Lacey