On a remote Scottish isle, Dan Paluska ‘97, SM ‘00, is floating three meters above a grassy field. Suspended from a gigantic array of helium-filled balloons, he’s pulling himself along a rope, so he can retrieve an airplane propeller. It’s a wacky battle of wits: he and his team have five days to build an amphibious vehicle that can get them off the island, and they need that propeller. They’re stressed out and bickering. But Paluska is having the time of his life.Welcome to Escape from Experiment Island, the latest reality television show from BBC producer Cathy Rogers. Filmed last summer on the Isle of Rhum in the Inner Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, the six-part weekly series premiered on TLC last January. Its premise: two teams, each comprising four contestants who haven’t met beforehand, compete in a series of techie challenges to build vehicles capable of getting them off the island. The hosts of the show provide equipment, tools, and technical instructions. There’s no prize for the winners, only bragging rights. “Before filming,” Paluska says, “the director sat us down and said, This isn’t Survivor. There’s no million dollars. We’re going to ask you to do things, so have fun and don’t sweat the details. It’s about good tele.’”
Five MIT graduate students made it onto the show, including Paluska and his girlfriend, fellow Artificial Intelligence Lab researcher Jessica Banks SM ‘01. You might call them MIT’s first couple of nerd reality TV. By day, Paluska is a mild-mannered researcher who designs and builds walking robots. His credentials include a stint as a cover boy, along with one of his robots, for Wired magazine’s September 2000 issue. Banks is no slouch either. The spunky robotics researcher is an artist who plans to start a company that will specialize in robotic furniture.
Banks and Paluska say they were drawn to Experiment Island because of its exotic sense of adventure and competition-and the free trip to Scotland. Last summer, after answering an open-casting call on campus and passing an audition-which involved team-building exercises filmed by camera crews on the Boston Common-the two were tapped to appear in different episodes. And that was just fine with them. “We like to separate church and state,” says Banks.