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Museum of Math

December 13, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

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MoMath, the Museum of Mathematics, opens on Saturday in Manhattan. From the press release last September:

The only math museum in the US, MoMath strives to enhance public understanding and perception of mathematics in daily life. The Museum’s dynamic, interactive exhibits and programs geared for families and adults will present mathematical experiences that are designed to stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of math.

Spearheaded by Glen Whitney, a hedge fund manager turned mathematics advocate, MoMath will fulfill the incredible demand for hands-on math programming, creating a space where those who are math-challenged — as well as math enthusiasts of all backgrounds and levels of understanding — can revel in their own personal realm of the infinite world of mathematics through state-of-the-art interactive exhibitions.

MoMath will consist of a suite of newly-created exhibits, following on the heels of the successful Math Midway, a popular traveling exhibition that offers an interactive, hands-on tour of mathematical concepts in a carnival-style pop-up. The Math Midway launched in NYC in 2009, and has been making the rounds throughout the country for the past three years. The overwhelmingly positive response to the Math Midway convinced Glen Whitney that he and his team were onto something – that math exhibits could indeed attract an audience, as well as inspire participants of all ages to learn. Those who enjoyed the Math Midway will be delighted to know that its marquee exhibit, Pedal on the Petals, in which visitors ride a square-wheeled tricycle over a sunflower-shaped track, will be featured in the new museum, taking its place among two stories of innovative new offerings.

The opening gala took place last night.

Edward Rothstein’s previews MoMath in tomorrow’s NYT:

For those of us who have been intoxicated by the powers and possibilities of mathematics, the mystery isn’t why that fascination developed but why it isn’t universal. How can students not be entranced? So profound are the effects of math for those who have felt them, that you never really become a former mathematician (or ex-mathematics student) but one who has “lapsed,” as if it were an apostasy.

[snip]

The goal … was to show that math was fun, engaging, exciting. MoMath is a proselytizing museum. And despite its flaws, it is exhilarating to see math so exuberantly celebrated. … The reason that there haven’t been many math museums is that the enthusiasm the subject inspires is not easily communicated and not readily discovered. In the United States, where student math performance is far from stellar, it is easy to see why a compensatory straining at “fun” is more evident than a drive toward illumination.

To attract the uninitiated, a display must be sensuous, readily grasped and memorable. Yet the concepts invoked are often abstract, requiring reflection and explanation. How are these opposing needs to be reconciled? With widely varying results. When I visited the museum twice this week not every display was completed, but the exhibits covered a broad spectrum of achievement. Many on the higher end of that range should be celebrated; much on the lower should be scrutinized and brought up to grade level.

So first, celebrate: in many of these exhibits the physical sensation of being immersed in a world shaped by a mathematical idea will have lasting resonance.

Having spent years trying to immerse students in worlds shaped by mathematical ideas, aiming for resonance, I’m eager to see how MoMath succeeds.

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Categories: Math, Museums
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