A Museum All About Math

Encore: April 30, 2013

MetroFocus host Rafael Pi Roman spoke with MoMath executive director Glen Whitney about the inspiration behind the museum and how he hopes to change our perception of mathematics.

For many young students in New York, math is not their strongest suit. But Glen Whitney, executive director of the National Museum of Mathematics, is hoping to change that.

“We sort of have this strange attitude toward mathematics,” Whitney, a former hedge fund quantitative analyst, said. “And, I’ve seen it, you know, at a party, it’s okay to say: ‘Hey, You know, I was terrible at math. Weren’t you?’ … It’s socially acceptable. You would never say, ‘ You know, I could never really read very well.'”

Located right across from Madison Square Park, “MoMath” focuses on the visual and physical elements involved in math. Interactive exhibits are designed to illuminate  geometry, algebra, or calculus in a way that is meant to be both informative and fun.

A young girl takes a ride on the Square Wheeled Trike, one of the museum's most popular exhibits. MetroFocus/Esha Ray.

One example is the highly popular Square Wheeled Trike exhibit. At first, it seems impossible that a square-wheeled tricycle will ride smoothly over a bumpy track,  but that’s exactly what it does.  Since the length of each side of the square is equal to the length of the arc in each bump, the square wheels roll smoothly.

“[W]e want to show here that with math that you can make things that seem to be impossible, you can make them possible,” Whitney said. “It’s that element of surprise. It’s that element of like,  ‘I’ve never seen anything like that before.'”

Other exhibits at MoMath include the Human Tree, an exhibit that transforms your body into a tree, sprouting scaled down versions of yourself from your arms as you stand in front of a digital screen.  It’s a way to explain how fractal trees work.

Since opening in December, MoMath has seen over 55,000 people come through its doors, from young children to elderly couples. Whitney hopes that museum-goers walk away with a sense of wonder and curiosity when it comes to math.

Walk onto the Math Square, and watch the display of lights change and detect your feet as you move around in a maze, pattern, or game. MetroFocus/Esha Ray.

“We want to have experiences that can be entered in a sort of visceral level,” he said. “If we spark curiosity then that illumination, you know, it takes work, like anything … So that illumination is going to come through the kind of attention that maybe can’t happen in a museum. But we can light the spark here.”

MoMath is located at 11 East 26th Street in Manhattan, and is open everyday from 10am to 5pm.

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