July 12th, 2010
“TOTALLY LIEM” (5 minutes): We are so grateful we were lucky enough to shoot a fun interview with Karel Liem for “Flock of Dodos” that managed to capture a few spontaneous moments of his laughter and enthusiasm. It isn’t much, but just by watching this you can understand why his students and colleagues were so fond of him. He brought a warmth and happiness to the often-cold world of biology. What more can you ask for to draw people into the profession of science.
We didn’t get enough of Karel Liem on film. That’s all I can think to say. He’s gone. He departed this world last fall (1935-2009), and unfortunately there is virtually no film record of him, despite his great and wonderful spirit and career.
Karel was widely loved, and last Friday night there was a banquet in his honor, attended by over one hundred scientists and friends, at the annual Ichthyologists and Herpetologists Conference in Providence, Rhode Island. Working with one of his former graduate students, Dana Ono, we put together two short videos which they used to open and close the presentation part of the evening.
The first video was 10 minutes (posted near the end of this essay) with some of his former grad students speaking about their fondness and respect for him, with excerpts from the one “sit down” interview a former student did with him eight years ago. The second video was 5 minutes in length. It captures a tiny slice of what made him so special — namely his tremendous enthusiasm and passion mixed with an irrepressible sense of humor and a fondness for pranks and practical jokes.
The second video (above) was 5 minutes, which ended the evening’s festivities on a fun and humorous note. It’s not the standard biographic tribute. But it might be better than that because it has what so much science filmmaking lacks — a heart and soul. It’s little more than a cobbling together of some outtakes from the hour long interview we filmed with him for my movie, “Flock of Dodos,” in 2005. But in the outtakes you get little snippets of his great laugh, his passionate style of communication, and his warm and friendly demeanor which was ALWAYS present.
Dana said the video went over wonderfully on Friday night and the thing he heard the most from people afterwards was that it completely captured the Karel Liem that everyone knew so well. Why is that? It’s because it’s full of SPONTANEITY — something I talked about in detail in the first two chapters of my book. The outtakes are all unscripted moments of Karel being himself. Not some guy stuck under the heat lamps the way most documentaries are made, with a group of strangers barking questions at the scientist like an inquisition team. No, these were moments of Karel Liem interrupting his buddy Jim Hanken to heckle him, then us wandering over to the Bio Labs library in search of something (we didn’t know what) to add into the film. He is totally relaxed and simply himself — the person everyone remembers.
I am now so, so thankful I managed to do this one interview with him. How else could you ever convey to anyone these three dimensional aspects of Karel Liem? THIS is what film is meant for. Not for a recitation of the facts of his career accomplishments — that’s what writing and resumes are for — but to capture these things that simply cannot be conveyed in print.
KAREL LIEM: A VOICE OF SCIENCE FILLED WITH PASSION AND HUMOR
In my years of graduate school at Harvard University (1978-84) we were treated to the opportunity of spending time with an unbelievable assortment of some of the world’s best biologists. There were the obvious superstars like E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould. Both of them taught the large introductory courses (Harvard wisely uses their celebrity professors as draw cards for the intro courses) for which I served as one of the army of teaching “fellows” (you DO NOT call them teaching “assistants” at Harvard, dammit — T.A.s are for lowly public universities! — I never could get over that, having gone to such places as an undergrad and being utterly lacking in any sort of Ivy League blue blood).
But in addition to these A-list showmen, there was an endless line-up of other amazing professors who would have been the highlight of any normal biology department. It’s sort of like the second string players on the New York Yankees in most years who would be starters if they were on other teams. Karel Liem was one of these characters.
He was the Henry Bryant Bigelow Professor of Ichthyology in the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard for over 35 years. I never did take his fish course, but my officemate and lifelong science soulmate Dr. Mark Patterson did, and ended up marrying one of his graduate students. More importantly for me, Liem’s lab was across the hall from our lab (the lab of my advisor, Ken Sebens) for my first three years of graduate school, so I got to know his four hot shot graduate students — all of whom were major organizers of the tribute last Friday (and are in the video below).
In particular, Dana Ono and I became late night partners in crime, hanging out in the wee hours, bitching about the under-paid lifestyle of academics (what better topic to match notes on late at night in a biology lab) and speculating on our futures. Dana already had things figured out. He noticed that professors drove cheap cars. That wasn’t gonna work for him. Upon finishing his Ph.D. he headed across the river to the Harvard Business School, did a special program that preps science Ph.D.’s for the business world, then dove feet first into the burgeoning business of biotech.
Over the years we’ve kept in touch as he battled his way through one start-up venture after another. He always has plenty of war stories to share. But through the years, he also remained close friends with his advisor, Karel Liem. Which reminds me of one of the major milestones in my memory of Karel.
One of the most sustained and forceful nights of laughter in my life was when Dana turned 40. His wife organized a birthday dinner for him at an Asian restaurant in Boston where we had about thirty people off in a separate room with the tables arranged in a large rectangle. It quickly turned into “Storytime with Karel” as Dana and the others started cueing him to tell all the best and most outlandish stories of his science career. And that was what Karel was best known for.
THE ATLAS OF ANIMAL PENSISES
His stories were legendary. Some of them he used in his lectures in the intro bio class. Like the story about the time when he was a curator of vertebrates at a museum in Chicago and a woman came in with a “worm” she had found in a can of cat food. She was suing the makers of the cat food over it and needed to know what it was, so she took it to the invertebrate biologists. They said it wasn’t any sort of worm, and in fact a close examination of the tissue showed it to be a body part of a vertebrate, perhaps a penis. The label on the can said the only animal ingredient in the cat food was horse, so they sent her over to the vertebrate curator, Karel Liem.
As Liem told it, “I took one look at what she had and said, ‘Madam, that is not a horse penis.’ She said, ‘How do you know?’ To which I replied, ‘Because I’ve seen a horse penis — you would need a much larger can!’ She asked what it might then be. I said without hesitation, ‘I believe it is a sheep’s penis.’ Then I led her over to my desk, pulled down my ‘Atlas of Animal Penises,’ and sure enough, there it was — a sheep’s penis!”
He said he later testified at the court trial about the identity of the contaminant. And that was just one of countless stories Liem knew how to weave into his lectures to help lighten the material, and always with his bellowing laugh. He was the best, as evidenced by the scope of the tribute to him last Friday night (and by the way, it’s prompted me to wonder, exactly how many scientists end up with banquets in their honor AFTER they have departed — not a lot, I guarantee you).
KAREL LIEM TRIBUTE INTRODUCTORY VIDEO: This was the longer (10 minutes) video with which the event opened. In the middle is 6 minutes of excerpts from a “sit down” interview Phil Lobel managed to conduct with Karel in 2002 which was not professionally shot (it was just him with his camera) but at least it’s something. So his interview and mine are all that exists as far as we know. There should be more for great scientists like this.
VIDEO PRODUCTION IN THE NEW MILLENIUM
And on another note, if you’ve got the time and are just sitting here reading along, let me tell you the amazing details of the longer video I shot with Liem’s former graduate students as it reflects the crazy new world of communication technology. We had set up for the four guys to meet at George Lauder’s lab at Harvard on a Monday morning at noon. The night before, I spoke with Dana about how they were going to shoot the video themselves. One of them had a cheapo video camera, but they had no clue about lighting, blocking, sound, basically anything to do with video production. I finally said to Dana, “We gotta do something about this. Gimme a few minutes.”
It was 11 p.m. in Boston on a Sunday night. I quickly put an ad on Craigslist in Boston, looking for a cameraman. Within twenty minutes I got three responses, one of whom, Tim O’Connor of New England Studios, said he routinely films professors at Harvard and would be up until 2 a.m. I called him. Badda-bing, no worries. At noon the next day he was over there setting up the gear.
And then, for the real twenty-first century twist, one of the guys took his laptop, connected with me on Skype, clicked on the video camera, set it up behind the cameraman, and the next thing I knew, I was directing the ENTIRE shoot via Skype for over 2 hours. I could see the guys in front of the camera, I could see the actual shot set up on the flip out screen of the camera, and on the other side, I gave the guys a walking tour of my house during the break. It was amazing. I felt like I was right there with them.
Strange world we live in these days. And not the same without Karel Liem.
Bottom line: If you know a truly great professor, go get a camera and shoot some video of them just being themselves — being spontaneous. You’ll be thankful you did someday.
If you read my book, you know it’s been a long 20 year journey into the world of filmmaking involving a lot of rejection, insults, and snubs. Some people ask me, “Was it worth it?” The answer is a resounding yes. All it takes is one night like last Friday where the filmmaking skills and resources I’ve accumulated are able to come to bear with a single effort that is able to bring the spirit of someone as wonderful as Karel Liem back to life for even a few mill-seconds in the hearts of those who knew him. That’s more than enough to know it has all been worthwhile.