A lot of MIT graduate student Jeff I. Lieberman’s work deals with human perception, which is interesting because the way Lieberman himself is perceived will soon teeter into weird new territory: He’s going to star in a TV show.
In October, the Discovery Channel will premiere “Time Warp,” a series that uses high-tech visual technologies, such as super high-speed video capable of recording 325,000 frames per second, to explore things that are outside of our perception. Lieberman, whose blend of art and science has already made him a rising star at MIT’s famed Media Lab, will be the host.
If the show succeeds — and the Discovery Channel has already ordered a full season of “Time Warp” to join staples like “Man vs. Wild,” “Dirty Jobs,” “American Chopper,” and “MythBusters” — then the handsome and charismatic 30-year-old roboticist and kinetic sculptor could be about to join the ranks of the cerebral geek media hotties, alongside the likes of Ira Glass and Tina Fey.
Lieberman, who doesn’t own a TV and lives in MIT housing, got offered the show in a cold call from a producer who had heard about his work at MIT’s high-speed photography lab. He took it because, he says, it fits nicely into what he calls his daily conflict between art and science.
“Every time I do art, I feel like I’m not serving utility in a direct way,” he said during a break from filming a high-speed video segment involving billiards at the “Time Warp” studio inside an artist’s loft in the Fort Point neighborhood. “Every time I do science, I miss the spark of the creative impulse. But I’ve come to realize it’s the same. In science or art, it’s about introducing people to new truths.”
On the show, Lieberman says the goal is to find things that are amazing yet out of our perception, and bring them into a range that we can comprehend.
“We’ve evolved techniques for taste and sight and sound, but we have just enough to hunt prey and avoid predators,” he said. “But when you tell someone that the rainbow actually goes farther than what you can see, they have a tough time dealing with that. This show is about using science and technology to experience deeper things, to find the deeper sources of awe.”
Lieberman’s work ranges from the cutely clever — on the wall of the “Time Warp” studio is “Moore Pattern,” a kinetic sculpture he created with two counter-rotating discs on top of one another that creates a dizzying effect — to the absurdly complex, such as “Absolut Quartet,” a giant “musical experience” he created with Dan Paluska ’97, a fellow MIT roboticist.
In “Absolut Quartet,” a user entered a short theme — a couple of words at most — into a web page, and the machine, on display in a New York gallery this spring, generated a unique musical piece with three instruments: a ballistic marimba that launches rubber balls off of wooden keys; robotic fingers that play’ spinning, water-filled wine glasses; and nine ethnic percussion instruments.
In many ways, Lieberman, who is also an accomplished musician and photographer, is the prototypical Media Lab student, said Cynthia L. Breazeal ScD ’00, his PhD adviser in the robotic life group, where Lieberman is focusing on applications of technology in artistic expression.
“He’s the real polymath,” Breazeal said. “He’s strong both technically and artistically, but there’s something else special about him. He’s got a flair. He’s not the stereotypical science and technology guy. He’s able to talk about science as something that’s very hip, and he’s a great person to communicate that to a whole new generation.”
Matt Kearney, who was supposed to be the technical camera consultant for the show but had such good chemistry with Lieberman that he’s now his on-air sidekick, said that Lieberman has found his gear in his ability to translate science to a popular audience.
“I thought it would be pure Mr. Science and my head would spin with boredom,” Kearney said. “What’s good about him is that he doesn’t talk down to you. He tells you the real science in a real way, and expects that you’re smart enough to understand it.”
Whether Lieberman turns out to be the next “Mr. Wizard” — who was one of his childhood heroes, and he’s been mining the show for ideas for “Time Warp” — remains to be seen. But he’s certainly having fun using visual technology to delve into heavy scientific riddles, such as how a hummingbird keeps its beak still, and simple curiosities, like what happens when you yank a tablecloth off a table.
“I think the more that I explore my work — the idea that we have perceptual limits — the more that it becomes obvious that the world was not created for us,” he said as he prepared to go back before the cameras to talk about what really happens when you put English on a billiard ball. “We are part of this vast evolutionary chain of immense complexity.”