By the late 1990s, Flint had officially retired, but, he says, he "got bored real quick." Soon came what he describes as a recurring itch. "Most of my career I've spent applying physics to various problems. Once every 10 years, I suppose, I ask myself: Within the realm of the technology I'm working in, what remains that hasn't ever been done?" Flint was also looking for a project that he and his wife could tackle by themselves. "We said, 'Let's do something where everything is within our control, where we can put our instruments in a van.' " That's when Flint, long oriented to looking at the heavens, decided instead to focus on the world around him.
The Digital Divide
To look at a photograph in the multiple-gigapixel range, I learned in an afternoon with Flint at his dining-room table, is to see the world in a new way. From a few feet away, a panoramic image he's taken of the Grand Canyon is startlingly vivid, almost hyperreal. As I move in closer, I am amazed that it retains its clarity. It does not become pixelated. Where I saw only a distant group of visitors standing across the canyon, I now see the fine chain-link fencing behind which they stand. Flint's photographs are like the hard-to-believe technology in spy thrillers-it turns out that you can, beginning from a panoramic shot of San Diego's skyline at night taken from a quarter of a mile away, keep zooming in until you can make out the poster on an apartment wall.
Flint turns to one photograph that shows the staggering potential of gigapixel photography. The shot is of a recent baseball game, White Sox versus Padres, taken at San Diego's Petco Park. Flint cajoled the stadium officials into letting him set up his camera in center field, in the section kept empty so that
batters can see the ball. His photo looks straight out of Sports Illustrated-at first. Then you realize that what might
normally be an anonymous crowd of tens of thousands blurred in the background is not so anonymous. "I could get a passport-quality headshot of everyone in the picture," Flint says. The photograph also captures the ball, hovering in the batter's box, about to be hit for a three-run home run that would give the Padres the lead. When Flint makes a large-scale print of the image, he's hoping to be able to make out the stitches on the ball. "It depends if it was spinning," he says, smiling.
The creation of what are essentially high-altitude surveillance photographs brought down to Earth required intensive engineering. The trick was to make something meant to take photographs at 70,000 feet perform at 200 feet. "Commercial lenses are pretty good, but they're designed to work with 8-by-10 negatives," Flint says. "We're twice that size. You could get a lens that gave good performance at the middle of the image but was fuzzy and soft out at the corners." Using a set of surplus Fairchild A7 spy-plane magazines he had procured at an auction, he and a friend, Paul Weissman, machined an ultra-wide-angle, extra-sharp lens, dubbed the Asymmagon, that could produce adequate clarity across all of the camera's 9-by-18-inch negatives.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.