Hands-on science museums—think New Jersey's Liberty Science Center or San Francisco's Exploratorium—are popular with school groups and adults alike. Can a hands-on math museum generate the same kind of excitement? Glen Whitney, a former algorithm manager at hedge fund giant Renaissance Technologies, thinks it can.
Whitney is in the process of securing space in Manhattan for the Museum of Mathematics, an interactive museum that will, in theory, make math jump out of textbook pages and into real-life activities.
The idea for a math museum came to Whitney after he visited the Goudreau Museum, a small Long Island museum dedicated to math, with his family. When Whitney found out that the museum closed in 2008 due to lack of funds, he started toying with the idea of building a new one. "I started thinking, maybe there's an opportunity. We have a cultural problem around math," he says. "You can go to a cocktail party and it's perfectly acceptable to say 'I was lousy at math.' It's not perfectly acceptable to say 'Oh, I was terrible at history.' To combat a cultural problem, we need a cultural institution."
So after leaving his hedge fund job in 2008, Whitney set up the Math Midway, a traveling hands-on math exhibition that continuously tours the U.S. (it will be at the Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas, Texas, until mid-May). The 4,500-square-foot exhibition features over 20 exhibits, including a square-wheeled tricycle, the "Mathematical Monkey Mat," and a DIY harmonic pattern activity. The Midway is already booked until 2013.
Now, armed with $22 million in funding, Whitney is hunting for a 20,000-square-foot facility in Manhattan for a permanent Museum of Math. He hopes to eventually raise $30 million—enough to expand the museum to a second floor. "We have several ideas for exhibits with a great deal of vertical height," he says.
One exhibit that could eventually be found at the museum: an aquarium of mathematical surfaces. "There's a column of water, and you can inject bubbles at just the right time into this column so they will rise at a constant rate," Whitney explains. "If you inject at the right sequence, it creates a surface of bubbles, an interesting 3-D surface. It's like a bubble fountain of mathematical surfaces."
Once Whitney finds space for the museum, he expects it to open fairly quickly—by 2012, if all goes well. And for those Manhattanites who can't wait? Whitney has an ongoing series of popular public presentations, dubbed Math Encounters, that cover everything from the geometry of origami to symmetrical patterns in music, drawing, and dance. "I think people are understanding how important math is and how we're falling a bit behind," he says.
[Photo Credit: Museum of Mathematics]