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June6, 2012

Vol. 112, No. 14


Renaissance Man

If you think a scientist can’t be a humanist, meet Erez Lieberman Aiden ’02

By Jocelyn Kaiser ’88
Published in the June6, 2012, issue


MUCH OF AIDEN’S WORK TODAYtakes place in what he and Michel call their Cultural Observatory. Although the words “Aiden Lab” are written on the oak door in gold, old-fashioned letters, the room looks much like a student study spot, with a worn couch and chairs, a half-dozen carrels, and blackboards covering one of the mint-green walls.

Sitting in one of the carrels is Benjamin Schmidt, a graduate student in history at Princeton who is spending a year at Harvard working at the Cultural Observatory. He shows off a new ngram viewer that the team has created to search Arkiv, an online database where most physicists deposit their papers. (The full text is free online.)

Schmidt has been using the Google Books ngram viewer to analyze the accuracy of period television shows. He has found numerous anachronisms, such as the mention of the term “black market,” which came into use during World War II, inDownton Abbey,the British drama set in the 1910s. InMad Men,the hit show about an advertising firm in the 1960s, errors are more of emphasis: Characters often say “feel good about,” which rarely was used in the ’60s. Michel and Aiden are working to add newspapers, periodicals, and other print materials to the Google ngram database.

Aiden’s biology work continues as well. A couple of miles away at the Broad Institute, he is developing techniques similar to Hi-C for mapping the three-dimensional structures of proteins. He works with Aviva on her Gates Foundation fuel-cell project. On the “back burner,” he says, is iShoe, the sensor-filled insole project he helped develop as an intern at NASA.

On the side, he and Aviva run a nonprofit, Bears Without Borders, that pays local artisans in developing countries to make stuffed animals for children in hospitals and orphanages. “I have very complex theories about how my work is actually helpful to the universe, and it’s nice, once in a while, to do something that one can see has a tangible and immediate impact,” says Aiden.

But his growing family may force some new realities to take hold. Once known for regularly pulling all-nighters, then sleeping in to catch up, he has been forced into “a normalized sleep schedule,” says Aviva, explaining that Gabriel, their toddler, “is up at 7, no matter what.” Aiden says that’s OK with him.

After all, his son has taught him about learning, too. “In the best possible week,” he says, “I won’t learn as much as Gabriel does.”

Jocelyn Kaiser ’88 is a writer atSciencemagazine.

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1 Response to Renaissance Man

Jim Merritt '66 Says:

2012-06-05 15:00:20

Wonderful profile. Why wasn't I born this smart?
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CURRENT ISSUE: June6, 2012