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With Unique Effort, Students Light Bulb

By Ifung Lu
Associate News Editor

Ever wonder how many students it takes to turn on a light bulb? Answering this question was the premise behind the four-day Independent Activities Period endeavor "How Many MIT Students Does It Take to Turn on a Light Bulb?"

This activity, sponsored by kinetic sculptor and 1994-95 Artist in Residence Arthur Ganson, culminated with the unveiling and performance of a Rube Goldberg contraption in the architectural studios of Building N51 last Tuesday.

Ganson's kinetic art exhibit, "mechanical e.motions," is currently on display at the Compton Gallery near Lobby 10.

The performance began with a student reading a book under an unlit lamp.

"It's so dark in here, I cannot see a thing. I shall turn on the light," he declared as he nonchalantly flipped the light switch to set into motion a bizarre and amusing chain of events typical of Goldberg's inventions.

The audience cheered in response to the humorous events as they were set off in sequence. In addition to the the obligatory falling dominoes and the knife- cutting-the-string effect, the machine also utilized several unique sequences incorporating such varied objects as a mooing toy cow, a thrown potted plant, and buttered popcorn.

Although a few segments failed to trigger correctly, causing some anxious students to run about and activate them manually, Ganson jokingly explained that this was all part of the plan.

The individual elements had been tested separately, but the Tuesday performance was the first time the machine as a whole was activated, according to participant Sumit Agarwal '98.

The students "went out of their way to be original - it was all creative," said audience member Robert E. Gruhl '97. "I liked all the wacky stuff."

Born Reuben Lucius Goldberg in 1883, Goldberg was the inventor of numerous contraptions that found outlandishly complex ways of doing simple things. For example, his automatic stamp licker was activated by a dwarf robot which overturned a can of ants onto the gummy side of a page of stamps, where they would be licked up by a starving anteater, thus wetting the stamps, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Students were creative

According to Ganson, the students had a lot of work to do in very little time. After viewing a video of Rube Goldberg contraptions done by various other people, the students brainstormed and came up with ideas to incorporate into the final project.

"It was a combination of students' coming up with ideas and thinking on your feet," Ganson said.

While students worked in small groups on the various parts of the project, everybody had to work together in order to get the machine to work as a whole, Ganson said. Although working under a time limit, students were free to design just about anything they wanted, according to Ganson.

Ganson particularly liked the fact that the chain of actions worked in a loop around the room, from the flipping of the switch to the final lighting of the bulb.

"It's a joke about what's happening behind the wall. It was a stroke of genius on [the students'] part," Ganson said.

Various other parts of the contraption held aesthetic or symbolic value for some of the participants.

The toy cab bumping into the trigger was a representation of how real cabs are always banging into things, Agarwarl said. The melted butter dripping into a bag of popcorn and weighing down a lever represented how heavy butter is, he said.

Alyce Grunt, a participant from Wellesley College, liked the swinging markers and the noisemakers which had no other purpose than to provoke a response from the audience.

The project was an opportunity for students to experiment with materials in a way that is aesthetically pleasing in addition to being mechanically plausible, Ganson said. It was "seeing in a different kind of way, using objects totally out of context."