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NPR's Morning Edition program highlights the arts at MIT

The National Public Radio program Morning Edition broadcast an eight-minute feature on January 16 about the arts at MIT.

Bob Edwards, program host, set the stage by saying that, in a time of shrinking public financial support for education, MIT is challenging the conventional wisdom by maintaining its commitment to the arts. The arts have always been a part of the MIT curriculum, he said as he introduced NPR reporter Phyllis Joffe.

Among those Ms. Joffe interviewed for the report were Professor Ellen Harris, the first person to be named associate provost for the arts at MIT, a position now held by Professor Alan Brody; Felice Frankel, MIT's first artist-in-residence in the sciences; composer John Harbison of the Music Faculty; composer Tod Machover of the Media Laboratory; and Nobel Laureate Jerome I. Friedman, interim head of the Department of Physics.

An edited transcript of the report follows.

JOFFE: According to MIT's 1861 charter, the school was founded for the "purpose of instituting and maintaining a society of arts, a museum of arts and a school of industrial science."

In 1989, MIT created the formal position of associate provost for the arts. Ellen Harris was the first. She says the Institute's founder believed that arts and technology were interrelated. After all, Harris says, most engineering problems begin with a picture.

ELLEN HARRIS: Drawing was in the first [MIT] catalog. Photography was in the very first catalog. So there was a sense that the visual arts in particular were very important to an education in engineering, and the visual arts, not just in terms of technical drawing, but in terms of life drawing, in terms of photography, in terms of simply taking an image of the world around you.

JOFFE: Last year, the Institute created its first artist-in-residence position in the sciences. At MIT's Edgerton Center, Artist-in-Residence Felice Frankel is helping a molecular biologist to use photography to help explain his complex studies of amino acids and proteins.

FELICE FRANKEL: They were producing some of their own images in black and white. They were using what they call scanning electron microscopy, which is looking at things much, much smaller than optical microscopy. But I said, "Have you looked at these under an optical microscope," and they said, "Not really. Just kind of in passing." I said, "Give me some of these things, and let me see what I can do with them." And not only did I create really wonderful things to look at, but what happened in the process was that I captured on the images some information that they didn't see before.

JOFFE: Felice Frankel is carrying on the tradition of earlier science photographers at MIT. In the 1930s, Harold "Doc" Edgerton's innovations with the strobe flash earned him the nickname Father of High-Speed Photography. And in the '50s, Berenice Abbott [at the request of MIT scientists developing physics materials for high school students] used photography to explore such physical phenomena as ocean waves.

No one questions that most students come to the Institute to pursue science and technology, usually with a passion. But once they get to MIT, many venture to the arts with the same earnest intensity.

1st MIT STUDENT: I wouldn't enjoy being here and only doing math and science. That's not how I see myself or my career. I've always seen myself as a well-rounded student.

2nd MIT STUDENT: Oh yeah, it keeps my sanity, more than anything. Like, there's only so much computation you can do, and then you just go crazy. But I like to write, and it keeps perspective.

3rd MIT STUDENT: Overall, it makes students' lives much better here by being able to participate in things that they enjoy outside of their engineering and science curriculum.

JOFFE: More than half of all MIT undergraduates take classes in the arts. Music professor John Harbison says he wants to work with students who are more likely to become chemists than clarinetists. Harbison is a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and a MacArthur Fellow who could easily find a teaching position at any conservatory, but says being at MIT gives him a chance to make a little difference at a crucial point in a student's life.

JOHN HARBISON: I hope if they've studied music here, that their work as whatever they [become], chairmen of boards of big corporations, is influenced by having reacted very strongly to pieces of music, in our case. And some of them, I hope, will be on the boards of symphonies or chamber music societies. I run into people from this place who I taught sometimes 15 or 20 years ago, and the musical impression is still with them, and I think that it's important at MIT that they ran into other things.

JOFFE: Music is the most popular of all the arts courses offered at MIT. There are more than two dozen music groups on campus. In their classes and after school, students play everything from traditional European classical to Balinese gamelan to contemporary electronic music.

MACHOVER: Music is a very good entrance point for people in general to learn about kind of more human and intuitive ways of using technology in other applications in the rest of their lives.

JOFFE: Tod Machover is an associate professor of music and media at MIT's Media Laboratory. Machover, who's invented his own musical instruments at the Media Lab, says the arts teach a student to create something tangible from an abstract idea.

MACHOVER: There's an extremely practical spirit here, and a spirit of building things, making things, trying things out. And [for] most students who come to MIT, one of the most fun things that they do is to find a compatible research lab somewhere around the Institute and dig in and do something. I think that it's that kind of spirit of "actions are stronger than words" in some ways that make it quite compatible, especially with the creative arts, because after all, the creative arts are-it's all well and good to theorize about them and one has to know what other people have done-but what really speaks in the creative arts is to sit down and do something and test it by presenting it to other people.

JEROME FRIEDMAN: It's very important that there be balance within the educational program and that we have a strong program in the humanities, the social sciences and in the arts.

JOFFE: Jerome Friedman teaches physics at MIT. He and two colleagues won the 1990 Nobel Prize in physics for their work confirming the existence of quarks. Friedman also sits on MIT's creative arts council, which advises the Institute on its arts policy and programs.

FRIEDMAN: I think the arts liberate a person's mode of thinking and I think it's very healthful and conducive to perhaps increasing creativity. Because the arts fundamentally are an exploration. Science and technology are an exploration. And it's very useful for a student to have an experience in which one can explore in an unfettered way. Now, of course I am of the opinion, obviously, that one should have a broad education. One should see the world from many different points of view, and I think the arts contribute to that enormously in an enormously powerful way. Even beyond the effects on creativity, I think it gives students a breadth of vision about the world around them.

JOFFE: Jerome Friedman believes that the painting and drawing he's done since childhood have helped him in his work as a scientist, especially in his ability to imagine complex phenomena. And Friedman says art helps bring a broader human perspective to the objective world of science.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on January 31, 1996.

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