An MIT Alumni Association Publication

At 4,000 pounds and 30 feet tall, Life of Tree, is the latest kinetic sculpture by Jeff Lieberman ’00, SM ’04, SM ’06 in collaboration with New York City design studio Hypersonic. It hangs in the atrium of the University of Utah’s Crocker Science Center and evokes a tree’s changing reflection in water, with tree trunk pieces slowly twisting and swaying around a central steel column.

 

I think it’s very easy to forget that science is just a model for the reality that we’re trying to observe.

The piece demonstrates the universal scientific principles of resonance and frequency response in its movement, while speaking to the imperfect ability of science to reflect reality. As Lieberman explains, just as wind and tides can distort a tree’s reflection, bad data or personal biases can similarly render scientific models inaccurate. “I think it’s very easy to forget that science is just a model for the reality that we’re trying to observe,” said Lieberman.

Lieberman’s idea for Life of Tree came far before the actual commission. He recalls being awestruck in an 8.03 Introductory Physics class at MIT when his professor conducted a vinycomb wave machine demonstration using rods connected by a thin piece of steel. As one rod twisted, each neighboring rod started to twist, creating the appearance of a wave. “They put glow in the dark paint on the tips of all the rods and turned the lights off, and all you saw was this wave go by,” he said. “It was incredibly beautiful, and it stuck in my head for 20 years before we turned it into art.”

 

Turning Life of Tree into art was an 18-month project. Lieberman teamed up with Hypersonic, which co-designed the sculpture’s concept and provided mechanical engineering expertise. Lieberman and Hypersonic have worked together in the past to create the Global Data Chandelier and the more recent Diffusion Choir, another atrium sculpture made of moving pieces that appear like paper airplanes or birds in flight.

A piece like this has a bunch of natural frequencies . . . there’s always the ability to find a frequency that’s going to resonate the whole structure in a certain way.

Life of Tree has a motor that moves the bottom of the sculpture, and tuned springs aid in drawing the movement through the rest of the piece. “A piece like this has a bunch of natural frequencies . . . there’s always the ability to find a frequency that’s going to resonate the whole structure in a certain way.” Lieberman and the Hypersonic team created 10 different animation cycles that Life of Tree draws upon at random throughout the day.

The work is made up of 190 hollow, brown, 3-D-printed pieces meant to represent the trunk and tree branches, organized into 24 separate slices spanning the full height of the tree. The leaves are represented by perforated aluminum, which cuts down on the sculpture’s weight while allowing viewers to see through the leaves, just as one would with a real tree. And just like a real tree, the sculpture is completely solar powered.

Beyond being a commentary on science and reality, Lieberman hopes Life of Tree will create a sense of wonder in its viewers, even if they can figure out how it works.

For me, there’s always been this tension in my work . . . to elicit the state of the unknown.

“For me, there’s always been this tension in my work . . . to elicit the state of the unknown,” he said. “When you are put in front of something that your mind can’t explain immediately, it forces you into a state of the unknown, and that often elicits wonder, at least for a short time.”

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