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Video: Art Meets Physics: The Ball Drop Project

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Editor's note: On Thursday, November 3, 2011, Professor of Physics Dwight Whitaker revisited an artwork by Ron Cooper, Ball Drop (1969), in performance and video at the Museum of Art's Art After Hours. Read below for The Student Life's coverage of the event. The video was produced by the Office of Communications.

Physics collided with art at the Nov. 3 Art After Hours, which took place outside of the Pomona College Museum of Art. This was the final Art After Hours of the semester.

Rebecca McGrew, senior curator at the museum, explained the origin of the project and the connection between the two subjects at Pomona. In 1969, then-curator Hal Glicksman invited artist Ron Cooper to present a piece at the college, giving him six weeks to come up with an installation. Cooper expressed an interest in using four large boulders and 50 square feet of steel, renting a crane, calculating the height and speed of the drop, and using those factors to consider the effects the boulders would have when crushing down on steel. The result would be a collection of folded steel.

Cooper encountered problems, however, and was unable to find someone to donate the steel. Additionally, the crane operator refused to participate because of the danger involved in the project.

Cooper changed the direction of his vision when he saw a broken windshield on the side of a road, noticing the interaction between sunlight and the cracks on the glass. He decided to instead drop heavy spheres onto a piece of glass, recording the drop with a high speed camera.

“People loved how the film became this abstract thing, with the sunlight reflecting and everything,” said McGrew. Replicas of Cooper’s inspiration, created by students who wore helmets and bashed their heads against windshields, are now on display at the museum.

The project re-emerged at the insistence of Pomona physics professor Dwight Whitaker. On Thursday, he gathered brass balls from the physics department, sheets of glass, and a camera of his own to recreate Cooper’s piece. Students surrounded him, wearing goggles, as he dropped the first ball on a piece of standard glass. The glass crunched as the ball met it, its pieces shattering into a spider web-like pattern and reflecting the light from the setting sun.

“It’s a really cool performance piece,” said spectator Julian Rippy PO ’15, who added that he is neither a physics nor art student.

The event attracted students of a variety of subjects, including Ben Bleiberg PO ’15, who said he was “interested in seeing the high speed video.”

Terri Geis, curator of academic programs at the museum, was also eager to watch the video, noting that the drop resembled the original and had the same “beautiful sparkle.”

Professor Whitaker played back the video in slow motion for the delighted crowd, who provided many gasps.

“It makes a real impact,” said Professor Whitaker.

This article was originally published on November 4, 2011, by The Student Life. To read more about Dwight Whitaker's work with the high-speed camera, read about his sphagnum moss research work.