My first impression upon entering the National Museum of Mathematics, better known as MoMath, could be described as one of complete mathematical mayhem. Pre-teenagers were swarming dozens of exhibits in what seemed more like a huge play area than a museum dedicated to the study of an abstract science of numbers, quantity and shapes. However, as I waded in and began to understand specific exhibits and hands-on activity stations, it quickly became obvious that this was a special place.
The museum, located at 11 East 26th Street in Manhattan, bills itself as the nation’s first major museum dedicated to mathematics. But it may be more appropriately called a hands-on learning center. More than 30 exhibits, created exclusively by MoMath, are designed to reveal the wonders of math in an “interactive, hands-on, engaging and fun” way. The exhibits invite participation, encourage experimentation and, hopefully, spark curiosity. Small touches, like handles forming the symbol for pi on the front door and pentagonal sinks in the bathrooms add to the fun.
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Judging from the enthusiasm I was seeing — and hearing at a roar — the museum is absolutely succeeding in eliminating math’s intimidation factor. While informational screens provide in-depth explanations, historical context and practical applications for the displays, interacting with the exhibits is much more compelling than the explanations of their abstract concepts. A few of my favorites included
- Feedback Fractals: Visitors get behind — and in front of — a camera to use feedback and other effects to create unique, beautiful and ever-changing fractals.
- Coaster Rollers: Take a seat on a rounded triangle and glide down a track on rollers that are not balls, but acorns and other lumpy shapes to discover why the ride is still so smooth.
- Hyper Hyperboloid: Enter a chamber walled by vertical cords. Spin in the swivel chair, and watch as the collection of perfectly straight cords come together to form a beautifully curved surface that surrounds you.
- Human Tree: Strike a pose and see your body replicated as the trunk, branches and sub-branches of a tree made of you! Move around and watch as the tree morphs, producing a surprising array of effects.
- Harmony of the Spheres: Touch the connected glowing spheres to make — and see — music. Explore major chords, minor chords and harmonies, and watch the patterns of colored lights as your music moves through space.
- Water Frieze: Design a repeating border pattern by attaching shaped sponges to your paint roller, and then paint it in water on this specially-designed wall to see your pattern come to life.
- Shape Ranger: Pick some shapes, put them on the table, and try to pack them together into the smallest area possible. If you fit them together well, you might set the daily or monthly record.
- Twist ‘n’ Roll: Each shape at this table is split in two, but can be reconnected in multiple ways. When you put them together, the new shapes that result roll along delightfully offbeat paths. Can you match the tracks on the table?
- Pattern Mesh: Pick two of the different grids or gratings, and superimpose them on a glowing table. The Moiré patterns emerge and change as you move the grids around.
- Square-wheeled Trike: Can you ride a square-wheeled trike on a bumpy track and have a smooth ride? Yes, if the track is made of catenary curves that keep the wheel axles perfectly level.
- String Product: Choose two numbers and watch multiplication come to life in the monumental string‐art paraboloid within the museum’s central staircase.
MoMath also hosts a free presentation series, Math Encounters, celebrating the world of mathematics and produced with support from the Simons Foundation. The next presentation, “Fractal Beauty,” is designed to be accessible and engaging to a general audience and will take place on July 1 at 4:00 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.: “People have long been fascinated by the beauty of iterated symmetry, but what makes these patterns so alluring? Alex Kontorovich, mathematician and accomplished sax and clarinet player, joins a long list of mathematicians and scientists as he delves into questions at the intersection of geometry, number theory and chaotic dynamics.” Math Encounters presentations are generally posted to You Tube within one to two months of filming.
This summer, the museum will be hosting its second conference on “mathematics of various entertaining subjects.” MOVES 2015 will take place from August 2 to 4, 2015 in New York City, immediately after the Bridges conference in Baltimore, and just before the MAA MathFest conference in Washington, DC. It will honor “seminal figures in combinatorial game theory: John Conway, Elwyn Berlekamp and Richard Guy, co-authors of numerous research articles and books, including Winning Ways for your Mathematical Plays. The conference will feature dozens of talks on current research in recreational mathematics, as well as a variety of family-accessible mathematical activities and events.
MoMath is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 364 days a year (closed on Thanksgiving Day). Note that the museum closes early the first Wednesday of every month, at 2:30 PM. Admission is $16 for adults and $10 for children, students and seniors. For further information, visit www.momath.org