October 21, 2014

CORNELL CLOSE-UPS | Professor Lieberman M.S. ’65 Balances Physics, Writing and Filmmaking

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When he’s not teaching Cornell students about electromagnetism, Prof. Robert Lieberman M.S. ’65, physics, spends his time writing fiction novels and traveling overseas creating documentaries.

When asked how he balances a variety of interests, Lieberman said that he lives “a schizophrenic existence.”

Kern Sharma / Sun Staff Photographer

Kern Sharma / Sun Staff Photographer

Kern Sharma / Sun Staff Photographer

Kern Sharma / Sun Staff Photographer

“I start off in the morning working on a book, run to the studio to check in with our editors on our Cambodian film, then to Cornell to work, then dinner at one of the dorms as a faculty fellow and then collapse,” he said. “Everyone thinks I have high energy, but they haven’t seen me in the collapsed state.”

Lieberman said his passion for writing preceded his passion for filmmaking. He began writing short stories at eighteen — the first of which were published in Sweden, where he used to live.

“I began writing novels because I thought I would leave something behind, but we’re in a post-literate generation,” he said. “There’s a natural evolution going from novels to film … and my books are all printed on acid paper that’s eating itself up.”

His most recent film, They Call It Myanmar, is set in Burma. Lieberman and examines everyday life in the second-most isolated country on Earth.

“The hardest part [of filming] was protecting people,” he said.

While his films are set all over the world, Lieberman said most of his novels — including his most recent one — The Boys of Truxton — are set in and around Ithaca, which provides him with inspiration for his novels.

“I’m trapped here,” he said. “Ithaca is a dark hole: It has heavy gravity, it’s very hard to get out and it always sucks you back, for better and worse,” he said.

After traveling all over the world, Lieberman said he is unable to choose a single memorable experience.

“Every place is different, yet every place is the same,” he said. “I find that people, regardless of their size or shape or color of skin, are still human beings who laugh and cry and love their children.”

Though Lieberman said he came to Cornell with the intention of becoming a veterinarian, he eventually pursued a degree in electrical engineering.

“The biggest mistake of my life [was] that I didn’t stay in veterinary medicine. I do love animals, and I’m sorry that I didn’t do that,” he said. “The other big mistake is that I started piano at age five and quit at age 10.”

Having been at Cornell for over 50 years, Lieberman said he has a “unique perspective” on the University and has seen much of the changes that have occurred.

“Cornell does some great things,” he said. “They teach me, so that’s why I’m still here. I could have retired a long time ago. My plan is to die at the blackboard.”

However, Lieberman said that Cornell “misses the boat” when it comes to sending the right message to students about the college experience.

“I worry that the students are getting the wrong message,” he said. “I worry that the students are caught up in this hamster wheel of prelims. No one is actually reminding them that they’re here to learn, and if you learn, the grades follow naturally.”

He added that he believes Cornell can encourage students to get trapped in a “competitive frenzy.”

“Cornell should be sending that message clearly rather than stoking the competitive frenzy,” he said. “Don’t worry about the job, worry about the education, because you can never guess what you’re going to be doing in the future.”

Lieberman also said he believes that there needs to be more “cross-fertilization” among the students.

“The engineers aren’t talking to the art history majors, and the government kids aren’t talking to the natural resource students,” he said. “Sometimes you can learn more outside the classroom than you can inside.”

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