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Exhibits add mirth to math

Museum of Mathematics

An artist's conception shows the Museum of Mathematics, which is slated to open in Manhattan in 2012.

The man behind an innovative interactive museum devoted exclusively to mathematics promises that it will be a "place where it's safe to be a geek" — but also something more: a place where non-geeks can experience the true joy of math.

"There's this whole force of fun and beauty that most people don't get a chance to experience," said Glen Whitney, a 42-year-old mathematician who left his job at a hedge fund three years ago to start up the Museum of Mathematics.

Whitney's dream is taking shape even now in a 19,000-square-foot space at 11 E. 26th St. in Manhattan: He and the rest of the MoMath team have already raised $22 million toward their capital goal of $30 million, and the museum is on track to open in late 2012. But they're not waiting until then to spread the good word: The museum organizers have been sending a traveling exhibit called the "Math Midway" around the country for the past couple of years. (The exhibit was featured at this month's World Science Festival in New York and opens at the Discovery Center for Science and Technology in Southern California on Saturday.)

They're also open-sourcing the exhibit plans so that any museum around the world can put up their own version of a MoMath display. "The mission of the museum is to create the greatest amount of exciting, hands-on, informal mathematical opportunities that are out there in the world," Whitney told me.

The Math Midway is serving as a sort of beta test for the opportunities that will be offered when the actual museum opens. One of the biggest crowd-pleasers so far is a square-wheeled tricycle that's built to ride smoothly on a scalloped track. "There's a mathematical principle that says there's a road for every wheel," Whitney explained. The trike illustrates how that principle, which involves geometric shapes known as catenary curves, can work in the real world.

"We already know that people will line up for this," Whitney said. "It's become a bit of an icon for the Math Museum."

The square-wheeled cycle rolls at the 2009 World Science Festival.

Another exhibit features puzzle pieces that are designed to fit together on cylinders, spheres and a shape that's curved like the mouth of a trumpet. "It basically lets you see how the curvature of the space you're in affects the kinds of patterns you can make," Whitney said. On a flat surface, you can fit six equilateral triangles around a single point ... but on the horn-shaped surface, you can fit seven.

"In every exhibit, we try to pack a surprise punch," Whitney said.

Although the museum is designed to appeal to all ages, the team is paying special attention to how well the exhibits go over with students in the fourth through the eighth grade.

"That's our sweet spot, for a very simple reason," Whitney said. "If you look at the trajectory of students going through the curriculum, things seem more or less fine up to the fourth grade. That period from the fourth to the eight grade is where we see a decline in the engagement of the students. Why are we opening a math museum in the first place? It's because we see cultural issues in this country."

International studies have shown that 15-year-old students in the U.S. perform well below the global average when it comes to math — specifically, 25th place out of 34 countries in 2009, when the Program for International Student Assessment's most recent test was conducted. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the results were "an absolute wakeup call for America."

Whitney has been awake and aware of this problem for a long time. He believes the standard sequence of math classes is way too limiting, and fails to engage students as much as they could be engaged. "Mathematics is actually much broader and richer than the list of topics that one reaches through the normal curriculum," he said.

MoMath executive director Glen Whitney is interviewed on NBC's "NYC Nightly News."

He hopes the Museum of Mathematics can play an integral role in turning the tide. Will the exhibits make math geeks out of non-geeks? Whitney doesn't obsess too much over those labels.

"We just want to create a place where it's OK to really love math and be enthusiastic and be engaged with it," he told me. "If you want to call that being a geek, then that's a geek. What we don't want is for students to end up three or four years later disavowing any interest in those beautiful surprises because they see signals telling them, 'Oh, that's not something we should be talking about.'"

Is it going to be a hard sell to get kids to go to a math museum? Or is this just what the doctor ordered? (Yes, Whitney has his Ph.D. in mathematical logic from UCLA.) Feel free to weigh in with your comments below. 

Extra credit: While you're waiting for the museum to open, here are some recently published books that put an unorthodox spin on math:

  • "The Mathematics of Life": Ian Stewart explains how mathematicians and biologists are working together on some of the most difficult problems the human race has ever tackled — including the unraveling of the genome, the structure of viruses, the spread of disease, the interaction of environmental factors and the origin of life itself.
  • "One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics": David Berlinski goes back to basics and explains the foundation of arithmetic, right down to the origins of the plus and minus signs. But don't get the idea that Berlinski is dumbing down the subject: This book touches upon the contributions by David Hilbert, Giuseppe Peano, Bertrand Russell and other brainy people through the ages.
  • "Loving + Hating Mathematics: Challenging the Myths of Mathematical Life": Reuben Hersh and Vera John-Steiner delve into the lifestyles of the not-necessarily-rich but famous mathematicians, in an effort to explain "why the most rational of human endeavors is at the same time one of the most emotional."

Looking for geeky places to go? Check out this report from the author of "The Geek Atlas," this roundup of top tech destinations and this list of shrines to innovation. 

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