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JULY 2012

An Interview with Paul Hoffman, President of The Liberty Science Center

 

Transcribed by Scout MacEachron

The Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J., houses labs, modern equipment, hands-on science activities and the nation’s largest IMAX geodesic dome theater. With over 600,000 visitors a year, including many school groups, the center has a major impact on science, technology, engineering and math education for visiting students and schools.

Education Update interviewed CEO Paul Hoffman, who has been at the helm for eight months. A prolific author, chess master, restaurateur, former editor-in-chief of Encyclopedia Britannica as well as Scientific American, television interviewer and paper-game tricks expert, he is a summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Harvard University and is perfect as the leader of the Liberty Science Center.

One of the exhibits he is spearheading, to open in April 2014, is the Rubik’s Cube, the most popular mathematical game in the world. The exhibit will be sure to attract many thousands of people. Professor Erno Rubik from Hungary, a personal friend of Hoffman, created the Rubik’s Cube nearly 40 years ago. According to Hoffman, one of the reasons for the popularity of the Rubik’s Cube is that it brings reason to a world of chaos. Google is collaborating on the exhibit.

Dr. Pola Rosen, Publisher (PR): You are truly a Renaissance man. How did you get to be that way?

Paul Hoffman, President of the Liberty Science Center (PH): My father was a professor of English literature. Our house was filled with books, tons of books on every subject. You were tripping over them on the stairs, so a lot of it was through reading. Basically I’m an amateur who knows a lot about a lot of different subjects but not as deeply as anybody who is professionally involved in those subjects, but I enjoy that. My first job right out of college [that] I started the day after I graduated was at Scientific American, where in [those days] the magazine was just written by scientists. And “written” in some cases included ghostwriting for them so I just went off to peoples’ labs. I worked with really great minds, among them Francis Crick. And I learned more science by spending a month in someone’s lab than I learned at Harvard as an undergraduate. So I’ve always been interested in a lot of things and I’m just lucky that I could carry that over into my work.

PR: What do you think about Borders bookstores closing? Are we really leaving the paper trail behind? Are there going to be no more books?

PH: No, I don’t think we’re leaving the paper trail completely behind. And it is sad, but there’s evidence now that more people are reading than before. If I’m sitting at a restaurant with a bunch of other folks in Brooklyn, and I’ll be sitting there having a drink at the bar and someone will introduce themselves and I get into a conversation with the person, they find out I’m a writer and they order books on the spot. So there is some evidence that there’s more reading. We can denounce the trend because you know books are beautiful — I certainly think that. I’ve written 14 of them. I don’t want paper books to go away. On the other hand if other platforms are opening more people up to [reading], I’m in favor of that. Just like moviemaking changed when we went to digital cameras — there are many old-timers that prefer film, but going digital has opened it up [to more people to make movies and] the cost of the equipment has fallen. So yes, it’s changed but I would argue that we’re better for it.

PR: How would you summarize the relationship between creativity, madness and obsession that you’ve said your work explores?

PH: A lot of people that have done great things — whether it’s a great scientific discovery, whether it’s composing an incredibly great piece of music, whether it’s being a great pianist — have devoted countless hours to doing that. Sometimes that comes at the price of other things in your life. I’m interested in what it takes to do great things and the obsession and genius that are required. You know sometimes, particularly in the sciences when somebody comes up with a theory that is totally out of the box but it turns out to be correct, the mind is structured in such a way that they entertain lots of out-of-the-box ideas but not all of them correspond to reality. There are many instances of that. People that are out-of-the-box thinkers might also lead out-of-the-box lifestyles. Sometimes it works for them, sometimes it doesn’t.

PR: You have done many fascinating interviews. Which one was the most interesting for you?

PH: I interviewed James Watson, Nobel laureate for the structure of DNA. One of the things he talked about was mental illness, because he has a son that suffers from mental illness. And he talked about it in a very passionate and sad kind of way, about how we’ve sort of neglected a lot of the basic scientific research on mental illness. One of his last legacies that he would like to leave is to be able to raise enough money and put the laboratory work in effect so that we can search more for the genetic components of mental illness. That was a very interesting interview. I’ve interviewed a lot of interesting people: Richard Dawkins, Penn Jillette, Oliver Sacks.

PR: How can educators best teach kids in their classrooms about STEM?

PH: If only it were so easy. We really have to get away from this model of one-size-fits-all [in education]. When I look at things that have changed since the founding fathers, education has changed the least. Everything has changed in our society, but education has changed the least. We still have kids sitting in a square array of desks with someone preaching at them from the front of the room. We need to move away from that model. Kids learn at different speeds. Kids can’t sit still at a young age and they shouldn’t be expected to. There was a movement called “free schools” when I was a kid that my father was actually very involved in, and there wasn’t enough guidance there. I think the balance between letting kids explore and directed exploration is incredibly important. And not dismissing the kids that aren’t getting it as fast as others. People learn in all different ways and the one-size-fits-all model that most schools are structured around doesn’t accommodate the range of human behavior, the range of differences in learning, the range of differences in speeds of learning and styles. We need to respect the individual more, not just as adults but respect the individual differences in children.

PR: Is there one book that sticks out in your mind as having been a seminal influence in your life?

PH: There were books I read when I was a kid with contraptions in them like Homer Price, the machine that makes donuts. I was very interested in contraptions and imagination. I enjoyed science fiction but I also knew it was fantasy, whereas I liked things that more took place in the world we live in but somebody is pushing the envelope by making some weird invention that does something. Even things like Encyclopedia Brown, the whole series of this kid detective who charges for solving mysteries on his block, I was quite influenced by that. I set up a little detective agency when I was a kid and tried to charge my neighbors for solving mysteries. I didn’t get a lot of business, it was more along the lines of somebody misplaced something in their house and I had to come find it. #

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