Math Midway


of an Exhibition

by Eric Siegel

Published on February 20, 2010, Modified on February 20, 2010

  • Description:

    The New York Hall of Science is hosting Math Midway, a new exhibition developed by the Math Factory, a group led by Glen Whitney that is planning a math museum in the region. I first saw components of the exhibition outdoors at the World Science Festival in New York City in the summer of 09. I was struck by the crowds that were drawn to the exhibition, the lively design and the general energy surrounding it. The only exhibits that I actually got to see increased my curiosity…particularly a very clever square wheeled tricycle that visitors could ride on a textured surface so that the ride was smooth. It was a clever way to get to kids through a counter intuitive experience and showed the kind of combination of experiential learning, fun, and aha! that we all aspire to.

    On the spot, we agreed that the Hall should host this exhibition, and thanks to the cooperation and goodwill of the Math Factory folks, we opened it this winter. The exhibition installs very quickly, using speedrail and drape for the backbone of the physical structure, and using the organizing metaphor of a carnival midway with booths and catchy “step right up” type language and descriptors. While this has the potential to be a bit corny for kids (how many have actually been to a carnival midway?), the quality of the individual exhibits dispels this concern. It is in the individual exhibit elements that the creativity of the team that put this together shines.

    I’ll start with my favorite component, called the Ring of Fire. This is a circle, mounted vertically, with lasers at 90 degree intervals pointed at the center of the circle. There are diffusers mounted over the lasers such that there is essentially a plane of laser light that covers the area of the circle (see I’m already talking more math-y and the exhibition has only been here a few weeks.) Several 3d geometric shapes made of transparent plexi can be passed through this plane, with the result that you can see the unexpected 2-d shapes defined by the plane intersection the shape. Think interactive “flatland” but with lasers. Very very clever and effective. I can’t say that all the kids were as impressed with it as the museum staff were. This is kind of an exhibit persons exhibit.

    Another very clever exhibit is called “plant the daisy” in which the visitor is challenged to place a long rod into a small hole while holding it on one of the vibrational nodes. Very hard to do with the large version, so they made a smaller version for kids. Again, very experiential with rich meaning.

    A section on mirrors worked very well, with a funhouse mirror in which visitors could control their reflection by pulling on a rope that changed the convex/concave configuration of the mirror. This same section had a very well designed mylar reflection activity that showed surprising symmetrical reflections.

    A large exhibit using two “watch hands” spinning at slightly different speeds with a string connecting them, and a monkey riding back and forth on this string was a clever, if a bit abstract, way of showing chaotic motion. It was loaded with a number line that had symbols for different types of numbers, whether prime, fibonacci sequence, squares, cubes, powers of 2. This was very dense for most visitors, and probably overlaid too much meaning on one exhibit, but having it explained opened up a world of exploration and interest.

    Another clever exhibit used numbered disks to balance a pirate ship, encouraging visitors to solve the equations that will be balanced. A well designed tessellation puzzle exhibit using monkey shapes, a building exhibit using large padded blocks to make cubes, a maze challenge, are all popular, kinetic, and so far pretty durable.

    The exhibition is still in its fine tuning phase, so there are kinks being worked out. But overall, this is an imaginative, effective, lively exhibit made by a team with a strong desire to share the joy of mathematical thinking. I hope it will not be too snarky to say that I was very surprised to learn that Ralph Applebaum’s firm designed the exhibit, as it is a much simpler, leaner, and more playful vocabulary than I have seen in any of their other exhibits. They deserve real credit for responding to the Math Factory’s enthusiasm with their own burst of creativity.

Latest Comments (1)

Chaos and Monkeys

by Jason jay Stevens - March 04, 2010

Those Math Factory folks are great; passionate about math…that’s a special breed. I looked it up on the NY Hall’s site, and the Midway is only exhibiting through April? And then what? You’ve really piqued my interest with the “watch hands and monkey” exhibit. Wish I could see it.

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