December 19, 2012 | 1
Math can be a beautiful, immersive, full-body experience, according to the creators of the newly opened Museum of Math, or MoMath, in New York City. A sculpture that lights up and plays music, a touch-screen floor that turns into a maze and a square-wheeled tricycle that one can ride around a bumpy track are just a few of the more than 30 exhibits in the 19,000-square-foot space. The doors opened on December 15.
“We want people to play, to touch, try out the games and puzzles,” said Glen Whitney, a former mathematics teacher and the museum’s founder and executive director, during a preview of the museum last week. The goal is to give math a makeover—it should be fun and engaging, not tedious and difficult to understand, he explains. The museum will “enable more people who want to connect with mathematics to do so.”
MoMath offers grade-specific private programs for students, which include classroom activities for students for pre- and post-visit instruction. Tours for other groups, such as math clubs, and weekend programs for the general public can also engage future visitors, says Cindy Lawrence, the museum’s associate director and chief of operations. “We think math is like writing,” she says. “You can always understand it at your own level and sophistication.”
That idea of math on your own level is apparent in the museum’s interactive display kiosks, which replace more traditional written labels. Visitors can select the basic or complex explanation for the exhibit. Those interested in even more detail can choose to learn about the history of related math discoveries, including the mathematicians involved, and explore galleries of images.
The museum mostly engages visitors with hands-on and interactive exhibits that display few visible numbers or equations. For example, when the smooth, interconnected globes of the “Harmony of the Spheres” sculpture are touched, they play musical tones and light up. The exhibit connects music and math through the exploration of groupings of three notes, called triads. Visitors can create harmonies, major chords and minor chords by touching different parts of the sculpture in specific ways and sequences. So, touching sphere A plays a chord, but touching the spheres adjacent to A and then touching A again changes the chord—one of the three notes will up or down by a half step (from C to C-sharp, for example). How the chord changes depends on the distance between a sphere and the previously played sphere. The sculpture as a whole serves as a geometric model of how triads relate to each other.
Other exhibits let guests experiment and search for patterns. The “Twist ‘n’ Roll” table holds colored rubber shapes that can be split apart and reconnected. Visitors then roll their new creations across the table. They can attempt to predict what path an object will take by looking at examples drawn on the surface. Will it wobble, curl, flip-flop or roll straight?
The “Human Tree” is another immersive math experience. A camera captures a visitor’s image and projects it on a wall. In the projected image, arms morph into smaller versions of the person, which in turn branch and branch again into a tree made of body copies. The image is fun and a little silly but also an example of a fractal—detailed pattern shows self-similar shapes at different scales. The tree shape reminds visitors that mathematics can describe natural patterns. Becoming a fractal is exactly the kind of unusual experience that Tim Nissen, the museum’s chief of design, hopes visitors will carry with them.
Nissen, a self-proclaimed science groupie, brings his experience in architecture to exhibit design. He joined the MoMath team during its previous incarnation as a traveling mathematics show. Stars from that show, such as the square-wheeled trike, became part of the new museum. The awkward-looking vehicle gives cyclists a smooth ride over the petal-shaped bumps of a giant sunflower in the center of the exhibition. Nissen points out that the path the square wheels take over the curves traces a so-called catenary curve. This shape is an “ideal” curve formed by a uniform cord hanging from two points, such as a chain hanging under its own weight. Regardless of how far apart the anchor points are, the force of gravity is equal at each point along the hanging chain. Inverted, catenary curves are used as load-bearing arches because they distribute weight evenly.
The catenary curves are not the only mathematical shapes hiding in plain sight at MoMath. In the striking “Hyper Hyperboloid” exhibit, colored cords extending from ground to ceiling surround a chair. Nissen demonstrates how visitors can enter the shape, spin in the chair and watch the cords swivel and form a curved surface around them.
Visitors can further shape their own experience by creating their own sculptures. At the “Mathenaeum” they enter a heptagonal (seven-sided) pavilion and choose one of three stations. A large crystal trackball along with wooden and brass levers help participants build and sculpt polygons on a large screen. Favorite creations can be submitted to the museum for a chance to be made real via a 3-D printer.
The many engaging exhibits arose from ideas solicited from mathematicians, computer scientists and others, Whitney says. “We talked to many [mathematicians] who sense they are working in a poorly understood endeavor,” he remarks. They had lists of ideas they had always wanted to share with others. Helping to design the museum’s offerings “was an outlet for their passion,” he says. Now the public can see the results.