Paul Hoffman [pictured], author of King's Gambit, is featured in this article from the Wall Street Journal.By SOPHIA HOLLANDER April 24, 2015 8:19 p.m. ET
Fun had been officially removed from the mission statement of the Liberty Science Center by the time Paul Hoffman arrived to run the Jersey City museum 3½ years ago.
He had other ideas. “I’m a big kid,” said Mr. Hoffman, 59 years old, who typically wears bright sneakers, jeans and a black T-shirt to museum meetings—and its gala. “This place should be playful.”
So far, Mr. Hoffman has brought in a resident magician, David Blaine, who is scheduled to perform May 1 at the annual Genius Gala Mr. Hoffman instituted (this year’s honorees include Amazon founder Jeff Bezos). He oversaw the installation of the so-called infinity climber—a suspended jungle gym—that hangs over the museum’s three-story atrium.
Now Mr. Hoffman is embarking on a more serious project: Earlier this year, Liberty Science Center, one of the largest cultural institutions in New Jersey, won the rights to develop 16 adjacent acres into a science and technology campus dubbed SciTech Scity.
Plans include a K-12 science-focused school, a science-themed hotel, visiting scholar residences and a business incubator. Museum and city officials estimate the project will cost around $250 million, with an initial target of raising $80 million.
Mr. Hoffman has been a restaurateur, tournament chess player, professional puzzle-crafter under the alias Dr. Crypton, science pundit, encyclopedia president, author and an adviser to Walt Disney World’s Epcot Center (when he was editor of Discover magazine, then owned by Disney).
He hasn’t been a master developer, but he is undaunted.
“I don’t need to know about hotel economics—I know who to talk to about that,” he said with a smile.
SciTech Scity may be different from anything Mr. Hoffman has done—but there is a precedent for that, friends said.
“He’s able to convince people through his passion and his intellect—he’s a hard-driving guy,” said David Fishman, who worked with Mr. Hoffman at Discover magazine. “He gets ideas and he does them. This Jersey City thing is obviously another kind of example of that kind of legacy.”
But it can sometimes take time to warm to his approach, they said.
“He really shows up with the aspect more of what you would expect from an extremely enthusiastic intern as opposed to someone at the head of an organization,” said Will Schwalbe, an executive vice president at Macmillan who edited some of Mr. Hoffman’s books. “The jeans, the sneakers, the kind of wild hair and the kind of restless energy.”
Mr. Hoffman’s appetite for information made him a natural choice to lead Encyclopaedia Britannica Inc. And it also means he never runs out of topics at parties.
“One second you’re talking about Rubik’s Cube and the next second you’re talking about brisket,” Mr. Schwalbe said.
Julian Brizzi, managing partner at Rucola, a Brooklyn restaurant where Mr. Hoffman is an investor, said: “There’s very few conversations he can’t jump into and provide at the very least an interesting anecdote.”
There was the time they were discussing chess and Mr. Hoffman shared a story about being locked in a room by the Libyan government during a chess tournament when they suspected he was a spy.
“That was certainly a story no one else has provided any corollary to in my experience,” Mr. Brizzi said.
Jersey City donated the land to the museum for SciTech Scity—and pushed museum officials to make their plans more ambitious, both sides said.
Mayor Steven Fulop said he was impressed by Mr. Hoffman, who quickly began assembling a broader board and embraced Jersey City with a new enthusiasm.
During the previous museum administration, the city council renamed the street Jersey City Drive “so they would have no choice” but to acknowledge a connection with the city, said Mr. Fulop, who was then a council member.
“The nature of the relationship has changed quite significantly and as a result of that I kind of felt, let’s do something big,” Mr. Fulop said.
The plans for SciTech Scity have Mr. Hoffman’s signature touches of whimsy. The buildings are layered like planetary rings (“wacky science shapes,” Mr. Hoffman said).
Visitors to the 135-room Thomas Hotel (as in Edison) could see robots delivering room service, he said. Guests might be able to choose the (digital) wall art or (virtual) fish-tank species with a click of a button. Wearable technology might track their sleep patterns.
The proposed school more directly reflects the history of the Liberty Science Center.
About 35 science educators work with more than 200,000 students a year, operating under the philosophy that “I shouldn’t just tell you what gravity is,” Mr. Hoffman said. “I should just start dropping objects.”