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National Museum of Mathematics is antidote to math phobia

10:00am, May 17, 2014

ON A ROLL  Square wheels roll with ease on a geometrically designed track at the National Museum of Mathematics.

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Few equations confront a visitor to the National Museum of Mathematics on Manhattan’s East 26th Street. Instead, museumgoers find children — and adults — riding the Coaster Roller (below), a small platform that offers a surprisingly smooth ride over acorn-shaped balls. (The trick lies in the objects’ diameter, which is the same in every direction.)

This physical, tactile, even rambunctious presentation of math is intentional, says museum cofounder Glen Whitney. Too many people think math is “boring, useless, too hard, irrelevant, stifling, something that people don’t use,” says Whitney, a former math professor and hedge fund analyst. He wants to show people “the breadth and the beauty and the creativity that are inherent in mathematics.”

The museum, also known as MoMath, seems to be succeeding. School groups come through in waves. Preteen boys execute Dance Dance Revolution–style moves on a lighted grid where ever-shifting lines display the shortest path connecting everyone on the floor. High school students compete to see how many magnetic monkey shapes they can tessellate, or link together. At the Enigma Café no coffee is served, but plenty of geometrical games are; players are encouraged to sit and solve together.

Opened in late 2012, MoMath is a high-tech, high-concept playground. It is also the only math museum in the United States, where students’ poor performance on international tests has inspired much hand-wringing among politicians and educators. Largely for this reason, the museum particularly targets kids in grades four through eight, a group known for finding math uncool. Still, cofounder Cindy Lawrence, a former accountant and curriculum developer, stresses that the museum’s goal is not to replace classrooms.

“Do I think MoMath in and of itself is going to raise grades around country? No,” Lawrence says. “We hope that by inspiring, we inspire education.”

For those explicitly seeking math education, electronic screens scattered around the museum’s two floors offer “More Math” lessons explaining underlying concepts such as why square-wheeled trikes require a track with bumps shaped like upside-down catenary curves. But at times the explanations can frustrate. Case in point: Each glowing orb in the exhibit “Harmony of the Spheres” plays a different chord when touched, but the text does little to illuminate how music relates to math or why certain chords sound more pleasing. “String Product,” a two-story parabola meant to illustrate an early calculator, is hard to decipher. And the decision to forgo traditional signage can force visitors to alternate between interacting with an exhibit and tapping on a touch screen several feet away.

For most visitors, though, these occasional annoyances may not detract much. “I just want to make sure they’re exposed to math as something fun,” said one visitor, while her young sons explored a geometric proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

And lest you think math games are just for kids, another mom put that notion to rest: “I think my husband and I have more fun than they do.”

For museum hours and admission, visit MoMath's website.

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