On days like these, you really appreciate old math and the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes and the number he popularized— Pi, better known as 3.14159….
In honor of Pi, I’ll take you on a tour of the Museum of Mathematics, which i visited in New York City today. Check it out.
I confess that the so-called New Math, versus the old math, scared me to death as a kid. Schools foisted it upon millions of children in the United States as a panicky reaction to the former Soviet Union’s rapid progress in the space program in the 1960s, New Math was supposed to inspire and create a new generation of scientists.
Great. Except almost no one got this Base Six-based math method. What was Base Six, anyway, we wondered. And not only did I not get it, either, but it ruined math for me at the time—it turned my favorite subject upside down. It completely befuddled teachers, parents and everyone else who was wondering if Base Six was just another way of counting on your fingers, minus one needed digit—another finger.
Even my hero, mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer made a joke of it. And it fizzled on the launch pad. Maybe that’s one reason I developed, at the time, a fear of math greater than any notion of the Cold War blowing my safe world into smithereens.
To cleanse myself of these nightmarish math memories, I headed, as I said, to the Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Also known as MoMath—and financed by a $23 million raise from former math professor and hedge fund algorithms manager Glen Whitney —the whole point of MoMath is to make math friendly and fun for kids. It also has the effect of soothing New Math veterans like me.
The Museum of Mathematics opened its doors last December with 30 exhibits. It’s an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole of oddities and enigmas where things are rarely as they seem.
It’s a cool place. Take a ride on the Coaster Roller—it’ll propel you in a wagon around multicolored acorns. That’s not because it gives you a bumpy ride, but because acorns have a constant calculable diameter and width—just as spheres do—so they are behave mathematically in the same way.
Remember the equation πr2 to get the circumference of a circle? Same idea.
At MoMath, the idea physically adds up on a two-story calculator that occupies the inner spiral staircase there. Nearby, pay a visit to The Enigma Café. It looks like a regular cafe, but it is filled with puzzles. Or check out the exhibit that lets you stand in front of a camera that will divide your body into fractals.
I found myself trapped in a mob of giggling kids hopping and skipping around. They were trying to make Voronoi Cells in a Voronoi Pattern using vivid colors on the floor.
Image credits: Russ Johnson for aNewDomain.net
Georgy Voronoi, the 19th century Ukrainian mathematician, would have called those kids seeds, a variation of the modern term, “rugrats.” It was wild. But the kids were working on a common mathematical model hospitals use to correlate the sources of infections in epidemics and gather data for provisioning wireless networks to study and deal with them.
Kiosks stand next to each exhibit where you can select among three levels of understanding: basic, intermediate and graduate school.
And here lies the museum’s major fault. Most museum goers won’t even get what is going on at perhaps any level until they research it. The whole thing just looks like a weird jungle gym to a child who may not have someone to explain the concept.
If his or her educators are good, your typical kid, I think, will be less fearful about math—old math, new math and everything in between, before and after — just by stopping by this cool math museum.
I like pi just fine. But what I want to know is: What ever happened to the dreadful Base Six? It’s gone. Base 10 is great for counting but base two is the language computers.
What are we to make of the New, New Math? Not much.
Based in Sonoma, California, Russ Johnson is the founder of Travelmedia and a senior editor at aNewDomain.net covering travel. Email Russ at Russ@aNewDomain.net and Follow him @connectedtravlr.