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05.24.2011
Adding Up in Manhattan
New math museum counts on Madison Square Park.
Museum of Math concept rendering.
Courtesy MoMath

As a kid Glen Whitney used math camp as a way to get out of the house during the summer. But after breaking his collar bone during a soccer match, all he had left to do was the math. Whitney described it as the breakthrough that led to “a whole terrain of discovery.” That passion inspired him to go on to study math at Harvard, teach math at University of Michigan, manage math for Renaissance Technologies, and coach math for his daughter’s math team. Now, Whitney is planning a new museum of mathematics set to open next year on the north end of Madison Square Park. MoMath, as the museum will be called, hopes to fill the 19,000-square-foot space on East 26th Street with interactive exhibits that will entice, engage, and inform all ages.

Cindy Lawrence, MoMath’s chief of operations, said the museum arrives at a time when teachers are struggling to get kids to perform on tests. “There’s so much stress that comes from ‘teaching to the test’ that teachers don’t have the time to make math exciting,” she said. Whitney agreed. “If it’s just presented to them as the test, then that’s a pretty empty motivation,” he said.

Despite the intense focus on math skills, Lawrence said that the country still faces a glut of skilled mathematicians at a time when thousands of jobs are available to them. To that end, the museum plans to link seemingly abstract concepts to real world jobs. One exhibit that’s currently traveling the country is called the “Ring of Fire.” A laser cylinder shows hidden shapes within the ring, at one point revealing a human body. The objective is to highlight the relationship between two and three dimensions—which the exhibit explains has a practical application, as when a doctor must look at a two-dimensional x-ray and relate it to the three-dimensional human form.

George Hart, who is responsible for the museum content, is working with Tim Nissen, chief of design, to translate the mathematical concepts into exhibits. Nissen suggested that exhibition spaces could be treated as different cities. He cited Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities as a touchstone for inspiration. The 1972 novel features Marco Polo describing 55 different cities to Kublai Khan. As the two don’t speak the same language, each time he describes a different city he uses an object to illustrate the city. As a mathematician and sculptor of complex geometric forms, Hart is uniquely qualified to help curate models that represent complex theories which will help tell the story of each mathematical city. “I came into this as a sculptor and I feel there’s a geometric aesthetic. Mathematicians find it on an abstract level, but I think we all find it on a visual level,” said Hart.

Not all the exhibits will be visual; some will aurally explore the math found in poetry and music. Most of the exhibits will be hands on and interactive, and many will be able to gauge the level of learning of the participant. “The target audience is middle school to adult PhD,” said Nissen.

Tom Stoelker