Sunday, February 3, 2013

You Can't Teach Old Liberal Arts Grads New Tricks

But you can persuade them to discover some new and totally unexpected pleasure in mathematics.

The dynamic duo, Fashionistas Idiosyncratic, 
triangulating @ the Museum Mathematic?
Thirsting for knowledge, @ MOMATH, they'd drunk. 
Well, kiddies, who'd ever have thunk?

On a recent Sunday afternoon, we ventured out into the frigid winter weather to check out for ourselves the Museum of Mathematics (MOMATH) which first opened its doors to the public on Saturday, December 15, 2012. The only math museum in the U.S., MOMATH "strives to enhance public understanding and perception of mathematics in daily life. The Museum’s dynamic, interactive exhibits and programs geared for families and adults present mathematical experiences that are designed to stimulate inquiry, spark curiosity, and reveal the wonders of math".

Spearheaded by Glen Whitney, a hedge fund manager turned mathematics advocate, MOMATH provides hands-on math programming, creating a space where those who are math-challenged — as well as math enthusiasts of all backgrounds and levels of understanding — can enjoy the infinite world of mathematics through state-of-the-art interactive exhibitions. MOMATH provides a permanent home for the highly successful Math Midway, a popular traveling exhibition that since 2009 has offered an interactive, hands-on tour of mathematical concepts in a carnival-style pop-up.

Before you've even bought your ticket, the math begins. Randomly scattered squares decorate the entry way. At the left, buy your ticket by computer (you can buy online as well). This saves person-power, which is put to better use out on the museum floor. A number of youthful staffers are available to help museum-goers more fully enjoy the exhibits.

Valerie's favorite attraction was the Math Midway's marquee exhibit, Pedal on the Petals, in which visitors ride a square-wheeled tricycle over a sunflower-shaped track.  Above is a photo of the exhibit and below is Valerie in action. Valerie thought that since the tricycle was well grounded that she could do the "look, ma, no hands" routine she enjoyed as a kid on a bike with boundless energy (and limited common sense), but the trike offered a bumpy ride, and Valerie feared hitting the much younger rider in the smaller trike circling in the opposite direction, so that attempt was scandalously short-lived. Click on the arrow or on .

This self-propelled ride called Coaster Rollers requires the occupant to grasp ropes on either side of the route and literally pull the large plexiglass arrowhead-shaped seat across the pastel-colored cushioned bullet-shaped cylinders from one end of the course to the other and back again. The shape of the cushioned cylinders apparently greatly reduces resistance, making the process easy even for small children to haul their own body weight and that of their seat. Jean insists that this place ought to be called the Museum of Physics, not Math, since so many of the exhibits deal with objects in space and concepts like momentum.

The Harmony of the Spheres in an exhibit on the lower level looks like a a candy-colored molecular sculpture. Placing a hand on any of the pastel balls causes it to glow and emit a sound.

Activating multiple orbs appears to create melody, sounding like something that porpoises would love.  To watch Jean give it a try, click on the arrow below or: .

Some of the activities are low-tech, like these oversized primary-colored rounded-edged Rubik's cube-like  pieces we saw lying in a pile on the floor.

Here, one of the staffers assembles the pieces into a sphere - a very popular shape at the facility.

Our favorite of the high-tech interactive installations was The Human Tree. Participants stand inside a circle drawn on the floor, and small cameras reflect them onto the wall in front of them. As they move, leaf- or flower-covered miniature versions of themselves emanate from their hands and fingers on the wall. Because it was Sunday, MOMATH was packed with young families, so we patiently waited until all the small fry had finished their frivolity and both took advantage of a lull in order to try it out ourselves. To check out Valerie's efforts, hit the arrow below or: .

To see Jean get up close and personal with her own Mini-Me's, click on the arrow below or on: .

Valerie was intrigued by a table on which oddly shaped (but mathematically based) wooden objects were rolled from one side to the other, the objective being to demonstrate that in some instances, the fastest route is not necessarily the straightest. Each object could be split in half and re-configured into a different shape.

Unfortunately, Valerie appears to have selected an object that appeared to have little or no roll-ability (at least not in that configuration). Click on the arrow below or .
MOMATH is great for both kids and their parents, actively engaging the whole family in the various activities. It was standing room only at the worktable in the Sculpture Studio on the main level.

On the lower level, stepping on a lighted dance floor, called the Math Square, created changes in the color of the section. No two participants could occupy a section of the same hue: that triggered the floor design to morph.  This photo captured the moment before the purple section on the right split into three separately colored sections.

Jean took advantage of a moment when everyone cleared the floor to demonstrate Voronoi cells. We thought we might get to play a game of Twister on it, but here's what the MOMATH website says about Voronoi cells: The Voronoi cell, named after Georgy Voronoi, is the portion of territory closer to you than anyone else. In this mode, the Math Square calculates the Voronoi cell of everyone standing on it. Got that?

Veteran readers know that we sometimes wax rhapsodic about restrooms. At MOMATH, even the shape of the sinks is designed to make the visitor think mathematically.

By the time we left, we were still mystified, but did have a better appreciation of math. Here's an example of math at work that we encountered just a few blocks south of the Museum.

Shortly after we exited the museum, we ran into author and style icon Lynn Yeager, all bundled up against the cold. When we told her we'd just been to the Museum of Mathematics, her response ("Eeewww. I hate math!") was totally predictable and would have been ours too before we'd been exposed to MOMATH.

We loved this! Obviously, the surefire way to get us to study math is to color everything red and black.

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If Valerie's bank account earns $57 in interest for the year, and US income tax takes $11 of that, and NY government takes $10, is there any point in saving? Oh, sorry, stream of consciousness. Wrong question. Try again. If Valerie's bank account earns $57 in interest for the year, and US income tax takes $11 of that, and New York taxes take $10, what percentage has been deducted?

For extra credit: How much less would have been deducted if that $57 had come from investments and not from simpleminded frugality?


  1. Both of you seem so FUN to me! Thank you for your demonstrations, ladies.

  2. You are always having so much fun. Reading your blog always puts a smile on my face.

  3. As usual, very cool Jean! Looks like fun..