A few weeks ago I wrote a rather feisty assessment of Glen Whitney's long-planned Museum of Mathematics. I made some math jokes, we all laughed — until I received an email from MoMath chief of operations Cindy Lawrence. She challenged me to meet in person to talk about the project, an assignment I accepted, but which also had me a bit worried. All I could picture was me standing before a giant chalkboard sweating, crying, trying desperately to solve proofs. When the location was decided upon — the empty unfinished museum space itself — I worried that my snarky ways had at last caught up with me. I had nightmares about being tormented by carnivorous equations.
The point is, I hardly knew what to expect when I showed up to the museum's 26th street location, just across the street from Madison Square Park. As I stepped into the dark, warehouse-like space I was greeted by Lawrence and executive director Glen Whitney himself. All thoughts of math-induced pain quickly melted away as I was very warmly welcomed by the two standing next to a table full of colorful toys, which looked decidedly un-sinister.
Almost immediately the pair sprung into a very well articulated response to the question that I had incredulously put forward in my first story: who exactly is the audience for this museum? Turns out the audience they have in mind is fourth through eighth graders, and, through them, math teachers and involved parents. "We want to pick up where CMOM [the Children's Museum of Manhattan] leaves off," explained Lawrence. "There really is no other hands-on museum in Manhattan for kids older than the CMOM crowd," Whitney added.
The museum technically is for children, though Whitney emphasizes that the objects and exhibits can be engaging for a wide age range. It is at this point that children around the world (and this reporter frankly) might expel a groan at the always problematic idea of "educational fun." It is, indeed, this particular groan that the MoMath team is trying to stifle. In fact, MoMath is doubling down, attempting to make a case not just for educational fun, but for mathematical fun.
"I'm very explicit that I feel like we have a cultural problem in this country when it comes to the role and the perception of math," said Whitney (at these words I cringed a little at my own acknowledged biases). "We want to try to alleviate the degree to which people are misled over the course of their lives as to what math is really like." He explained that the problem is that math in school is often boring, about plugging numbers into formulas, and children are taught that math only exists in enumeration. "I want to give more people the chance to see the exploratory side of math," he says.
And then, pitch completed, it was my chance to get exploratory myself with the colorful objects in front of me. I, a declared math skeptic, was looking over the table of toys and wondering if an unbeliever could indeed be converted. A lot of them were small and unassuming, things that wouldn't necessarily catch your eye. One, a tiny cube made of two twisty interlocking pieces, is called a Skrube. The goal is figuring out how to put them back together. Reuniting the halves is not as easy as it seems; it took me a few minutes with some gentle prompting from Whitney.
My personal favorite was the Six Axis, a fairly large sphere made of interlocking rainbow-colored shapes held together by magnets. If you push down on the top — or in a bigger version sit on top — the pieces explode apart. You then must match the magnets to build the shape again. Whitney explains that kids really like it because they want to rebuild it so they can explode it again. While the concept is relatively simple, matching the small pieces in the right way to put the sphere back together is actually pretty engaging. I found myself wanting to sit down cross-legged and really put the thing back together — if only so I could destroy it again.
The museum will also have a Tile Factory where kids can draw tessellations (tiling patterns) and then a machine will build the tiles for them to take home. A similar device allows visitors to morph a shape digitally, which can then be brought to life with the help of an amazing 3D printer.
The fairly unostentatious objects I was presented with are about engaging a person to really think about their construction. There is an "ah ha" moment when you take the time to play with them and explore how they work. I was lucky to have Whitney and Lawrence there to guide me through figuring out how they worked patiently. Playing with these puzzle-like math toys felt a little bit like rediscovering my inner Euclid. If anyone can make math fun, I must admit Whitney might be the one to do it.
But I'm hardly the only person who's been convinced. The museum has raised $22 million — exceeding its original capital goal by $16 million. Evidently being able to market yourself as America's only museum of mathematics is a pretty convincing business pitch. Whitney says the project snowballed from a 5,000-square-foot space in Stony Brook, Long Island to a 20,000-square-foot museum in midtown Manhattan. The significance of that particular bit of math isn't hard to calculate.
Whitney acknowledges that he is fighting something of an uphill battle trying to convince people entirely disillusioned with math (read: me) that it can be fun. "It's not as though I feel that we'll open the museum and then everyone's going to waltz into geometry class and love it," he says. Rather his aim is to change the emotional environment where math is taught, add some excitement to old Mrs. Davis's class.
"If we can get more people, especially pivotal people that are involved with kids, like teachers, improving their attitudes toward math and then make that infectious, that's really our most likely path toward having a broader social impact," says Whitney. "I think if we are just a really fun place to go that will be an accomplishment in and of itself."