Sunday, November 2, 2014

MoMath: The Museum of Mathematics

by Drew Martin
Today I went to MoMath (The Museum of Math) on 26th Street in Manhattan, which looks out onto Madison Square Park, and is just a block south of MoSex (The Museum of Sex).

MoMath is a very engaging, hands-on, and very kids-friendly place. On top of that I do not think I have ever encountered such nice and involved staff.

MoMath is chockfull of interactive areas and displays, most of which have a kid-level attraction with a math professor thinking behind them, which means you get toddlers intuitively interacting with installations while their parents join in on a higher level.

MoMath occupies two floors: 0 at ground level, and -1 in the basement. Highlights include two, square-wheeled tricycles that ride smoothly over a bumpy surface made of radiating arches, and an illuminated floor maze that does not seem like much of a challenge until you realize you have to follow one rule to get to the finish point: no left turns.

I also loved a polypaint area, which has a traditional easel with little illuminated cans that the user dips a big paintbrush/stylus into and then applies that selection to a blank canvas (an interactive flat screen monitor). Unlike what you might anticipate to happen, the stroke gets translated into patterns and soon enough the canvas is rich with colors and sets of curves and lines.

One thing I really appreciated was how the details of the museum extended into the bathrooms: the two sinks in the men's room (pictured bottom) are pentagons at the surface level but triangles at the drain. There is also an advanced pattern with tiles on the wall. 

MoMath does a really good job making math-inspired interactive displays. If I were to add something it would probably be a display that could show how the various number systems work including Arabic, Roman, and Mayan numbers. Maybe there could be something like a wired abacus that would show the calculations behind the movements of the beads.

I see that the gallery section of the MoMath website has an interesting video series, called 
Math Encounters that I would like to watch. All three posted videos are all at least an hour and 15 minutes long:

1. Naked Geometry (81:01) 

2. Knot Theory, Experimental Mathematics, and 3D Printing (75:39)

3. Change of Perspective: How Math Helps Us See the World Differently (82:09) 

The second video, including knot theory reminds me of a guy I once sat next to on a flight returning to college. He was reading a tome titled On Knots. My understanding of knots was limited to boy scout hitches and so I did not think much more about them. I assumed Knots was an old English author I did not know about so I asked him who Knots was. Much to his amusement, he explained the math behind knot theory.

Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia's first paragraph on this subject:

In topology, knot theory is the study of mathematical knots. While inspired by knots which appear in daily life in shoelaces and rope, a mathematician's knot differs in that the ends are joined together so that it cannot be undone. In mathematical language, a knot is an embedding of a circle in 3-dimensional Euclidean space, R3 (since we're using topology, a circle isn't bound to the classical geometric concept, but to all of its homeomorphisms). Two mathematical knots are equivalent if one can be transformed into the other via a deformation of R3 upon itself (known as an ambient isotopy); these transformations correspond to manipulations of a knotted string that do not involve cutting the string or passing the string through itself.