There are plans to build a Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan and over $20 million has already been raised for the ’cause’. The Math Midway, which already exists as a traveling exhibition, has something of a preview of coming attractions. There is also a discussion about what mathematicians would like to see at the museum taking place on MathOverflow here.

What do you think of this idea? Personally, I am skeptical, though I may just be being snobbish – it is likely that my academic leaning precludes a fair judgement of such a thing as a museum of mathematics because I will always be tempted to say “If you want to learn about maths, then maybe you should study some maths: Read some books, pay attention at school, discuss maths with teachers, discuss it online, join a math club/circle etc.” I’d be worried about the negative effect of people going in and saying “Oh so this is maths? It’s boring”. Which seems to me even less desirable than “I know nothing about maths”, because my response to the latter can be “If you studied it like I do, then you too would love it!”

So, if it can be accepted that not everything is necessarily amenable to ‘museumization’, then I would definitely argue that mathematics falls into this category and would make a poor subject for a traditional-style museum. (I’ve never been a huge fan of Science Museums either, so perhaps I’m just the wrong person to ask – what do ‘proper’ academic scientists think of the Science Museum in London, for example?)

It sounds a bit romanticised by it’s also arguable that one really does need to invest some effort into appreciating mathematics. Every mathematician knows the feeling when, while at the pub, having just defended the beauty and awesomeness of mathematics, a friend says defiantly “Go on, tell me some maths”… *Show me *the beauty and awesomeness. But this is impossible. The passivity of this stance immediately places the friend outside of those who are capable of appreciating mathematics on the scale that the mathematician does. You can’t just sit there and *be shown*. You have to *do*. You have to *show yourself*! The mathematician knows that her friend isn’t actually prepared to spend the next hour struggling to appreciate some minute idea which the mathematician seems to assert is worth understanding.

*This comment was sort-of inspired by seeing the MathOverflow discussion, but there is a character limit on comments in the forum!*

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09/01/2011 at 20:55

XamuelIt could go many different ways. It could focus on *math history* and there’s precious little reason to criticize that. Or it could focus on math education, though that would be somewhat boring. The worst case scenario is it focuses on math in the same way that the movies “Good Will Hunting” or “Pi” do, in which case we’ll just have to groan every time a friend’s friend or a distant relative brings it up.

Here’s a project I did a year or so ago which turned out to be very popular among non-mathematicians, and similar projects might be appropriate for the museum (though it would beg the question why not just have the museum be online, but I guess that goes for almost all museums nowadays): http://www.xamuel.com/inverse-graphing-calculator.php?phrase=blame+it+on+the+analyst

04/04/2011 at 03:14

George HartHave no fear! The Museum of Mathematics will not be a traditional, boring place. And I completely agree with you that to really understand and appreciate the deep joys of mathematics, people need to spend time studying it. But in a few hours visiting MoMath, visitors can be exposed to some of the enormous breadth of math, beyond the tiny slice they know about from class rooms. They may enjoy the Aha! of solving mathematical puzzles or take pleasure in seeing mathematically based artwork. They may be excited by a range of cool experiences, powerful enough that they become motivated to put in some of the work that will move them deeper into the field.

We love math because it is a beautiful, dynamic, creative field, that impacts our lives in many ways. If we can communicate some of its richness to the public, we can move visitors one or two steps in a positive direction.

No museum exactly like this has ever been attempted, so ours is something of an experiment. We’d love to hear your ideas for exhibits that give visitors an awesome experience while getting them to think about the underlying mathematical ideas.

George Hart

Chief of Content

Museum of Mathematics

http://momath.org

http://georgehart.com