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Science Talent Search

Philip Lieberman (STS 1952) Pursues Language, Travel, and Photography

By Caitlin Jennings, Communications Specialist, Society for Science & the Public

Philip Lieberman (STS 1952) remembers the Science Talent Search as a big opportunity, especially as a first generation American and son of parents who had never attended high school. He says STS is important because it bolsters kids like him, who are bright but who otherwise might not go on in academia.

Philip did go on in academia, earning a B.S. and M.S. in Electrical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. However, in 1958, while working as a research assistant at MIT, he was walking down the hall and heard strange noises.  He was so intrigued he went into the room emitting the unusual sounds to investigate and found a speech recognition machine that produced artificial speech sounds. This spontaneous experience sparked Philip’s interest in linguistics, especially in the engineering side of speaking, such as respiratory control. While it may sound counterintuitive, Philip says, “Most of the big advances in speech come not from linguistics but from engineers.” He earned his Ph.D. in Linguistics and is now a professor in the Department of Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences at Brown University.

Mrs Reena Thapa. My first impression on entering her room was that she has done everything she could to make it neat and organized. She cooks on the shelf to her left. The basket on the floor holds rice, which must be sifted to remove the small stones placed in it by merchants to cheat on weight." -Philip Lieberman. A tiny figure, barely visible, in my photo of a trash dump, can stand for the whole story.  Atop the pile of trash, this person is searching for the bits and pieces he or she may be able to sell at the junk yard, to earn enough to pay for the next day’s meal.  Not far from the small area of temples that comprises the tourist sites of Kathmandu, the rest of Nepal’s capital is a massive junkyard, its rivers open sewers.Like that person atop that pile of trash, the people of Kathmandu, equipped only with determination, the will to work, and the instinct to survive, struggle for the basic means of existence, and somehow keep going." - Philip Lieberman

Philip has published almost 150 journal articles on the evolution and nature of the biological and neural bases of human speech, language, and cognition.  He has conducted multiple experiments, including a research project on Mount Everest over the course of nine years where he studied the effects of oxygen deprivation on cognition and motor control. “My basic interest was to explore the nature and evolution of the neural circuits that confer human cognitive and linguistic ability,” he says. Several documentary films have been made concerning his work on the evolution of speech, a unique attribute to our species. 

When he is not giving lectures or writing papers, he enjoys traveling and photography and has collaborated with his wife on a few books, including Walking the Alpine Parks of France and Northwest Italy. For 30 years, he has been traveling to rural regions in Nepal, Tibet, and the Himalayas. (Two pictures from Nepal are pictured here).  Some of the areas he captured on film required a six-week journey on foot to get to, and some of the photographs recorded a way of life that no longer exists. Many of his photographs were included in the Himalayan Digital Library and 45 prints are going to the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology. Philip’s photography acumen did not just develop later in life.  In fact, his STS project involved creating a technique for making film more sensitive, and in addition to the science awards he won in high school, he also received photography awards.

Given his many interests, perhaps it is not surprising that he advises young scientists to “be loose.” “One thing leads to another in very crazy ways in life,” Philip says, remarking on the twist in his career path. “I literally heard these funny sounds in the hall and said, ‘hey what’s that’”?

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