Science and emotion mingle in Time Warp's Lieberman lecture
Issue date: 4/9/10 Section: Focus
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Lieberman has a total of four degrees, all from MIT: two bachelor's, in mathematics and physics, and two master's in mechanical engineering and media arts and sciences with a focus on robotics. He is also pursuing a PhD at MIT's Media Lab. Additionally, Lieberman is an accomplished singer/songwriter, plays several instruments, and enjoys combining art and science into robotic sculptures. However, he is probably best-known for his role on the Discovery Channel's Time Warp, in which he attempts to pique viewers' interest in the sciences by presenting the subject matter in a fun and innovative way.
According to Lieberman, "the process of discovery itself can be really fun." He says too many people are intimidated by science and shy away from it at a young age, and he thinks bringing together art and science holds great potential for future education. "The way that [people] learn science needs to be emotionally based," he said, because this type of approach is more natural than memorizing formulas.
Lieberman's talk focused not only on the relationship between art and science, but also on "where [humans] are in the universe." This includes human perception, which sparked Lieberman's interest when he began studying photography and the science behind it. According to Lieberman, humans understand a mere fraction of the universe around them, and their perceptions are based almost entirely on the way their eyes function. This results in a very localized and often skewed perception. He said, "Everything [humans] take for granted is in some sense an illusion." In his opinion, the purpose of science and technology is to "get beyond what the human body can see for itself."
To explore this idea, Lieberman uses high-speed photography to capture "amazingly fast" events such as a bullet passing through a water droplet. He included a variety of awe-inspiring slow-motion video clips in his presentation, including clips of a spitting cobra, a bullwhip breaking the sound barrier, and glass shattering during an automobile crash test.
Lieberman pointed out many examples of the distorted way humans view the world around them; for instance, he explained that if Earth were the size of a billiard ball, the oceans would be about as thick as a layer of spit on the ball's surface. He also showed an extended family tree of the human race, including various primates, reptiles, and even worms. Every plant and animal on the tree is a direct relative of humans, he said, but no one realizes it because of their limited time frame. They also don't realize that, more than likely, their very own bodies contain atoms that were once a part of living, breathing dinosaurs. According to Lieberman, "there are so many atoms moving around…that it is beyond conception," so humans have developed their own localized self-concept, which "has always been really amazing to [him]."
Lieberman's projects include Cyberflora, a garden of interactive robotic flowers, and Lightbulb, which demonstrates the wonders of electromagnetic levitation. His more recent Absolut Quartet transforms someone's 30-second musical input into a complete musical piece, usually a few minutes long, using a multitude of instruments that would be impossible for a single person to operate. He says his works are attempts at embedding scientific concepts in aesthetically pleasing artwork, and from his presentation, they appear pretty successful. He amazed his viewers with impressive optical illusions and fascinating clips from Time Warp, saying, "you can break all the laws of physics because your brain is totally duped." Lieberman certainly did not disappoint with his captivating and eye-opening presentation.