Tiny mechanisms, big ideas

One of the great parts about having friends in town is the excuse it gives you to drag them to all sorts of places you always want to go, but never have the time. At the top of my list was the MIT Museum, which is just down the street, and offers free admission, but somehow kept slipping through the cracks in my schedule.

The space is equally divided into five areas: robots, Arthur Ganson, Harold Edgerton, holography, and MIT history/culture. Every exhibit is fascinating, and could easily be in a gallery or larger museum, but without a doubt, Ganson takes the show. Some of the highlights:

  • Cory’s yellow chair: A simple yellow chair becomes a statement of coordinated disarray as it is ripped apart and spun in six different directions. The pieces mesmerize as they spin endlessly in symmetry, before being slammed back together for an instant, making a satisfying “click,” and then being torn apart again to start the process over (real video).
  • Wishbone: One of Ganson’s best techniques comes from his masterful knowledge of mechanical illusion, giving a complicated device a simple, implausible explanation. The wishbone in question appears to be the horse to a giant cart, slowly but surely pulling like a World’s Strongman Competition. Of course the reality is the opposite, a giant machine pushes the delicate wishbone forward, one bone at a time (real video).
  • Machine with Concrete: How slow can you go? After 12 1/50th gear reductions, the answer is, pretty darn slow. A motor drives this system of gears initially at 212 rpm, by the third gear, motion is imperceptible, and the other end a bit is driven into a block of concrete at a rate of one rotation every 2.191 trillion years (real video).

If you’re ever in the Boston area, this exhibit is well worth checking out. Many of his gadgets are so surreal (Inchworms, Machine with 23 Scraps of Paper) are truly indescribable, and need to be seen in person. At $5 (or free if you’re with an MIT student), it’s money well spent.

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