Entry 193: No Mo Math

Big news: the Museum of Mathematics has opened in Manhattan, and if you’re looking for a place to kill a few hours with the kids over the winter, this is probably not it!

I mean, unless your children wear pocket protectors, they’re not likely to be overjoyed when you say, “Hey, kids, let’s go to MoMath!”

(“MoMath,” by the way, is the “cool” shortened name the museum has chosen for itself. I dvdsuppose it’s a take-off on MoMa, which shows you how clever mathy people can be. MoMa, of course, is the Museum of Modern Art, which has a lot in common with MoMath such as the fact that they charge admission and have a gift shop, although probably not with incredibly desirable merchandise like a DVD entitled Math Encounters: The Topology of Twisted Toroids.*)

Anyway, back to MoMath. Its website is unique among museums in that it says almost nothing about what’s in the museum. It does, however, have a very clear mission statement:

“Mathematics illuminates the patterns that abound in our world. The National Museum of Mathematics strives to enhance public understanding and perception of mathematics. Its dynamic exhibits and programs will stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of mathematics. The museum’s activities will lead a broad and diverse audience to understand the evolving, creative, human, and aesthetic nature of mathematics.”

Makes you want to run right on over, doesn’t it? The website also tells us that:

“The National Museum of Mathematics began in response to the closing of a small museum of mathematics on Long Island, the Goudreau Museum.”

Call me crazy, but I think a more appropriate response to the closing of the Goudreau would have been: “A math museum? Is that what that was? I’m surprised it stayed open as long as it did!”

trikeWhat MoMath is very proud of is a traveling road show called the Math Midway, which includes the chance to ride a square-wheeled tricycle and spin the “universal wheel of math,” described thusly:

“Pick three cards, any three cards! You’ve just chosen three of the number families – which one do you think is most likely to come up when you spin the wheel? Now give it a whirl – are you feeling lucky? Keep spinning until you’ve got a winner!”

It doesn’t say what you win. If your number comes up, maybe they let you leave.

Look, I don’t know what they’ve got in their space on 26th Street, but, like all museums, they’ll probably have rotating exhibits, right? Here are a few I’m looking forward to:

  • A Brief History of the Abacus. Since the dawn of man, people have been using beads to count and also to purchase drinks at Club Med. But now, both have given way to newer technology, such as calculators and all-inclusive resorts. See examples of these “counting frames” through history and learn the answer to the mystery of the ages: is it “abaci” or “abacuses?”
  • Bye, Bye Miss American Pi. Does pi have a future in America? You don’t have to pi_symbol[1]wait 3.14159 (etc.) years to find out. As a fascinating aside, you’ll learn the sometimes humorous story of the ancient Hebrews, whose progress was held back for centuries because they confused pi with chai and spent generations trying to figure out the size of circles using 9.51413.**
  • Who’s on Base 5? An examination of alternative base universes. Thrill to the sight of everyday numbers expressed in Base 4, Base 8, Base 32 Hebrew_Chai_Symbol_trans[1]and other numerical systems used by ancient civilizations that, for one reason or another, are no longer with us. Not that we’re saying their math had anything to do with that.
  • Hal Holbrook is Archimedes. The actor, long known for his portrayal of Mark Twain, takes on the man who so greatly advanced plane and solid geometry. (Some language may be unsuitable for children under five and incomprehensible to everyone else.)
  • Why We’re Still Alive. Well, December 21, 2012 came and went, and you’re still alive and stuck with that luxury underground bunker you paid $100,000 for. What went wrong? Explore the tiny math error that led the Mayans astray, and see why you should hold on to that bunker for another, oh, 3 million years or so.
  • The Untold Story of X. For millennia, mathematicians have been “solving for x.” But even algebra didn’t let us really know X…until now.
  • One Singular Sensation. It all had to start somewhere, and this is the history of the first bold number that stepped forward and yelled, “Follow me!”
  • Leibniz vs. Newton: Who Do We Blame for Calculus? Without Gottfried Gottfried_Wilhelm_von_Leibniz[1]Wilhelm Leibniz and Isaac Newton, we might not have laws of differentiation and integration, second and higher derivatives, and the notion of an approximating polynomial series. It would be chaos! But why does Newton have a delicious cookie named after him while very few people have heard of Leibniz? It comes down to Newton’s advanced knowledge of public relations. And, no, you really won’t ever use calculus after high school.

Well, I think that should get MoMath through its first year. But if you visit and discover that it’s as boring as it sounds, keep in mind that the Museum of Sex is right around the corner.

Bring the kiddies!

See you soon.

9*It should be said that MoMa does have one other thing in common with MoMath: it has numbers in its collection. It should also be said, however, that while the work at left is in MoMa’s collection, it is not on display, which is the fate of many paintings that are bequeathed to MoMa but that MoMa doesn’t really like, much like the scarf you got at Christmas.)

**Because it’s Hebrew–get it?

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