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Liberty Science Center awards gala mixes genius, humor and big bucks

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Paleontologist Jack Horner, left, and physicist Kip Thorne were among the honorees at the Liberty Science Center.
Paleontologist Jack Horner, left, and physicist Kip Thorne were among the honorees at the Liberty Science Center. - ()

Exhibits at the Liberty Science Center have been teaching kids that science can be really fun for more than two decades.

The center's fifth annual Genius Awards on Friday night in Jersey City proved a perhaps more unlikely hypothesis: Scientists can be really funny, too.

Scientists getting hate mail from kids? Legendary architect Frank Gehry making references to an episode of “The Simpsons”?

You had to be there.

The gala, perhaps the premier event in the state during the spring philanthropic season, didn't disappoint the crowd of more than 700 who were.

Gehry, astrophysicist/black hole researcher Kip Thorne, legendary dinosaur hunter Jack Horner and the “Mother of Mindfulness,” Ellen Langer, joined an elite group of honorees that has included Sir Richard Branson, Garry Kasparov, Jane Goodall and Jeff Bezos in the past.

This year's honorees, as well as Liberty Science Center Director Paul Hoffman, did it in style in a fast-paced, entertaining evening.

Hoffman, a genius in his own right, is perhaps equally known for his T-shirt-only wardrobe. In fact, when retelling how he actually purchased a suit for this occasion, he had the crowd roaring when he talked about immediately getting a fraud alert text from his bank after the purchase.

"I know there are people here from Chase, so your fraud alert algorithms are really, really good," he joked.

The awards started with Thorne, a Princeton graduate who earlier this year led a team of more than 1,000 scientists who helped prove another one of Albert Einstein's theories — the existence of gravitational waves.

Thorne, considered an expert in black holes, worm holes and parallel universes, said gravitational waves "are ripples in the fabric of space and time," and that it took 100 years to prove Einstein's theory because they are so weak by the time they reach Earth. In fact, he said, the detected movement caused by the collision of two black holes that proved the theory was 1/100 the diameter of a proton.

An "unbelievably small amount," he said, before referencing a cartoon in The New Yorker.

Horner, the noted paleontologist, was honored next for his lifelong contributions to our knowledge of dinosaurs.

But Horner, who was a technical adviser on the “Jurassic Park” movie series (and even the inspiration for a character), joked he is no longer a hero of the dinosaur-loving younger generation.

Not since he showed that the Tyrannosaurus rex was a scavenger, hardly the man-eating king of the herd it has been portrayed to be. Kids have been letting him have it ever since.

"I tried to use T-rex as a way to show how science works," he joked. "That you just can't assume anything in science that you have to find evidence and test your hypotheses. And, for the most part, kids like that — except when it comes to T-rex. They want the T-rex to chase things around and eat people."

Perhaps the only person who could feel Horner’s pain was a fellow scientist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, a renowned astrophysicist and science communicator who had to explain to the world why Pluto is no longer considered a planet.

Tyson, in an honorary video, had the crowd roaring with his tales of woe from small children blaming him for the loss of their favorite planet.

Architect Frank Ghery, left, joins actress Whoopi Goldberg and Liberty Science Center CEO and President Paul Hoffman at the Genius Awards gala.
Architect Frank Ghery, left, joins actress Whoopi Goldberg and Liberty Science Center CEO and President Paul Hoffman at the Genius Awards gala. - ()

The 87-year-old Gehry topped them both when he started his acceptance speech with an anecdote.

"The only other team I've been associated with this word 'genius' is when I was asked to be on 'The Simpsons.'" he said. "In the episode, I get a letter from the town to do a concert hall and, for some reason, I reject it. I crumple it up and throw it on the ground. A light hits it, and it becomes a concert hall, and I have to say, 'Frank Gehry, you're a genius.'"

Being a genius on TV, Gehry explained, was not easy as it sounds.

"I had to go a studio with Marge (Julie Kavner) and for a half-hour she beat on me until I got so angry I said it with 'gusto,' because otherwise I couldn't have said it properly," Gehry said.

The evening wasn't all about comedy.

Hoffman, in fact, highlighted so many of the wonderful things the Liberty Science Center has accomplished, including 650,000 visitors a year, and more than 13,000 family memberships — both well above where the center stood when he was named CEO and president in 2011.

Hoffman, however, is happier still about what's to come, highlighting the $5 million donation by Liberty Science Center trustee Jennifer A. Chalsty, which will help the center build the largest planetarium in the Western Hemisphere in 2017.

The dome, Hoffman noted, will be so big that the better-known Hayden Planetarium in New York City will be able to fit inside it.

Hoffman is equally excited about SciTech City, which will be built on the 16-acre lot adjacent to the center. The city, he said, will help "totally transform" New Jersey.

"We want to put the world's best science school, K-12," he said. "We want to build an incubator for 100 startup companies and also a place where established companies can come and experiment with new ideas.

"You heard (Allergan CEO and Liberty Science Trustee) Brent Saunders talk about open science. It's not enough to stay within the walls of your own company, this is a big world and you should be mixing it up with other people and that's what we're going to do in this place, create a community of innovators. We're going to have a science hotel there, so when visiting entrepreneurs or potential business partners of the incubator (arrive), they can stay there. And when many of the people who have come here and won genius awards ... want a place where they can start their next companies."

Hoffman then got to the real point of the evening, fundraising, announcing the event had raised more than $2.7 million to help fund the center and its future plans.

But for all the jokes and all the fundraising, the event ended by reminding the crowd what Liberty Science Center is best known for: challenging the mind.

Ellen Langer, left, accepts her Genius Award from founder and President of Bedtime Math Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, and CEO and President of the Liberty Science Center Paul Hoffman.
Ellen Langer, left, accepts her Genius Award from founder and President of Bedtime Math Laura Bilodeau Overdeck, and CEO and President of the Liberty Science Center Paul Hoffman. - ()

Ellen Langer, the “Mother of Mindfulness,” gave the crowd a quick demonstration on how people can be mindless instead of mindful, meaning they shut themselves off to the possibility of learning.

Langer explained how 1 + 1 may equal 1 on more occasions than it equals 2. (Consider one load of laundry plus another load of laundry. Combined, she said, they are just one load.)

"Once we're taught something, once we think we know, we don't think about it anymore," she said.

Hoffman said Langer is a pioneer in what's called the psychology of possibilities. One of Langer's landmark studies proved that if the human mind can imagine something, the body may be able to follow. In other words, mind over matter.

Not being mindful, Langer said, can be detrimental to our daily life.

"Science only gives us probabilities, which is better than not having anything," she said. "However, those probabilities are translated as absolute facts. And when you know something absolute, there's no reason to pay attention while everything is all the while changing, everything looks different from different perspectives so while holding it still, we're giving up lots of possibilities."

Being mindful, constantly examining and questioning our changing world, Langer said, is key.

"All of our problems, whether personal, professional or societal, are the direct or indirect consequence of this mindlessness or this allusion of knowing," she said. "The upside is that there's the potential for mindful solutions by simply noticing."

Langer was humbled that the Liberty Science Center noticed her.

"An award like this is validation for a life led differently," she said. "For that reason, especially, I am enormous grateful."

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