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令人难忘的“博士”埃哲顿

2006-07-09 13:37

The Unforgettable “Doc” Edgerton

  Some years ago, off North Carolina's Cape Hatteras, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took part in a search for the sunken Civil War ironclad Monitor. They hoped to pinpoint its precise location with a sonar device, but failed.

  “What a waste,” one scientist said. “We didn't find anything.”

  “What do you mean, we didn't find anything?” a cheery voice spoke up. It belonged to Prof. Harold Edgerton, the inventor of the sonar device. “We found it wasn't there.”

  That was “Doc,” forever the optimist. He took almost perverse pleasure in an experience that went awry. “Oh, boy,” he'd mutter brightly. “Now we're really going to learn something.”

  A tireless inventor, he held 47 patents, not only for sonar equipment but for deep-sea color cameras and lighting systems, as well as for his most recognized contribution to our life today: high-speed photography with electronic flash. He devised the strobe light — a brilliant, rapid flash created by passing electrical current through a vacuum tube filled with xenon gas. Doc called it “God Almighty's lightning in a container.” On cameras and skyscrapers, along airport runways, in copiers and automotive engine timers — it was all Doc's doing.

  In exposures down to a millionth of a second he used the strobe to photograph bullets cutting through playing cards, the graceful coronet made by a drop of milk on impact, a hummingbird sculptured in flight. Thanks to Doc's pioneering pictures, we know that a cat laps milk with both sides of its tongue, that bats catch prey with their tail membranes, and that aim isn't affected by the kick of a pistol, because the kick doesn't set in until after the bullet has left the barrel.

  Through the years, Doc's dazzling pictures have become classics of science and modern art. Famed photographers Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams have praised them, and the Museum of Modern Art has hung them almost as consistently as Picasso paintings.

  “Don't make me out an artist,” Doc would say. “ I'm an engineer. Still, he discarded dozens of photos of that milk drop before he got one with crown points that were esthetically pleasing, Though he complained that he never produced a perfect one, he had post cards of the photo printed in bulk, and he handed them out to everyone he met.

  Most of all, Doc was that priceless rarity, the teacher you remember all your life. To him, sharing knowledge meant working together in discovery — and never mind the ego. One of his students remembers him proudly showing off a new idea on automatic strobe flashing. Doc gave his famous crooked grin and arched his eyebrow. “That's a fine idea.” He said. Only later did the student learn that Doc had originated the concept years before.

  The world was Doc's laboratory. Over a half-century he explored the ocean floor with Jacques Cousteau and the crew of the Calypso(who nicknamed him “Papa  Flash”), tracked this century's longest total eclipse of the sun from the Sahara, used sonar to sound St . Mark's Canal in Venice for the legendary lost column of Luxor, photographed nuclear-bomb explosions at Eniwetok, probed the Caribbean for Spanish gold, and searched repeatedly for Scotland's Loch Ness monster. His energy was so high he often slid down three floors of banisters from his office. “If you don't wake up at three in the morning and want to do something,” Doc liked to say, “you're wasting time.”


令人难忘的“博士”埃哲顿

  几年前,在距北卡罗来纳州海特拉角不远处,来自麻省理工学院的科学家们前来搜寻内战时期沉没的铁甲舰。他们希望借助声纳装置来确定它的精确位置,可没有成功。

  “真是徒劳”,一位科学家说,“我们什么没找到。”

  “你说我们什么也没找到,指的是什么?”一个欢快的声音响起来。这发自哈罗德·埃哲顿教授,声纳装置的发明人。“我们发现它不在那儿。”

  那就是“博士”,永远的乐观者。他对有偏误的试验给与近乎反常的宽容。“哦,伙计,”他轻快地咕哝着说,“现在才是我们真正学点什么的时候。”

  他是一位不知疲倦的发明家,持有47项专利,不仅包括声纳设备还有深海彩色照相机和照明系统,以及对我们当今生活做出的最为人所知的贡献:带电子闪光灯的高速摄影技术。他设计出电子闪光灯—— 一种使电流通过充满氙气的真空管而产生明亮快闪的灯光。博士把它称作:“管子里上帝的闪电。”在相机上和摩天大厦上,在机场跑道边,在复印机和自动引擎计数器里— 都包含着博士的创造。

  他利用电子闪光灯百万分之一秒的曝光,拍摄下子弹穿过纸牌的瞬间,一滴牛奶滴落所产生的优雅的冠冕,蜂鸟在飞行中的纹路。由于有了博士超前的照片,使我们了解到猫用舌的两侧舐食牛奶,蝙蝠靠尾部薄膜捕捉猎物,还有目标不会受到后坐力的影响,因为子弹在离开枪膛后后坐力才会产生。

  多年来,博士拍摄的令人炫目的照片成了现代艺术与科学的经典。著名的摄影师爱德华·斯泰肯和安塞尔·亚当斯都曾对此加以赞许,而现代艺术博物馆则几乎把它们与毕加索的绘画悬挂在同等的地位。

  博士会说:“不要把我看成艺术家,我是个工程师。我只是探索事实。只是事实。”话虽如此,可在他拍成那幅令人赏心悦目的冠冕前,他也废掉了数十张牛奶滴落的照片。尽管他抱怨说从未拍出一幅完美的作品,可他仍有大量印着这幅照片的明信片并且逢人便送。

  最主要的是,博士是个难能可贵、令你终生难忘的老师。对他来说,分享知识就意味着在探索中共同工作——而从不考虑自我。一名学生记得自己曾向他炫耀过一个有关自动电子闪光灯的新点子。博士露出他为人熟知的皱眉龇笑。他说:“这个主意不错,”只是到后来这个学生才得知博士几年前就有了这个发明。

  这个世界就是博士的实验室。半个世纪以来他同雅克·库斯托和卡吕普索号的水手们(他们都称他“闪光爸爸”)探索着海底世界,从撒哈拉沙漠追寻着本世纪持续时间最长的日全食,用声纳去探听威尼斯圣马克运河里传说中失落的勒克生廊柱,拍摄了埃尼威托克岛上的核弹爆炸,在加勒比海探查西班牙黄金,并且反复搜寻了苏格兰的尼斯湖水怪。他的精力充沛得以至于常常从三层楼上的办公室沿楼梯扶手滑下来。博士喜欢说:“倘若你不是清晨三点就醒来去做些事的话,那么你就在荒废时光。”

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