Stony Brook man hopes math museum plan adds up
A year ago, Glen Whitney learned that a tiny museum of mathematics in Herricks, the Goudreau Museum, had closed. Whitney, his children and friends had visited the educational establishment, which barely filled two classrooms and was open only by appointment. Nevertheless, he said recently, he remembered thinking at the time: "Isn't this a great country - there can be a museum on anything, including math." He acknowledged that the Goudreau Museum was "too small to get the momentum to touch a lot of people," but he also understood what a vital role a museum of mathematics could play in society. And he has set out to make that happen. "We want to change the way people view math," said Whitney, 40, of Stony Brook, who is president of the Math Factory, a group aimed at founding the ambitious math museum. "We want to change that equation." Whitney, who has a doctorate in mathematics from UCLA, envisions a 30,000- square-foot interactive institution in or near a city that has an established museum culture. He said his dream is at least 21/2 years away from achieving reality. "I think most people have a view of mathematics that there are some people who do it, but overall it really doesn't make a connection with their lives," said Whitney, who is a member of the Three Village school board and coach for the Mount Math Masters club team at William Sidney Mount Elementary School in Stony Brook. "What we want to do is show how important math is on a day-to-day basis," he said, citing baseball statistics, timing traffic lights to avoid rush hour and even tying knots in your shoe laces.
A better picture of math To pursue this dream, Whitney left his job as the algorithm manager at Renaissance Technologies, an East Setauket-based hedge fund, and assembled a team of math professionals and enthusiasts to serve as the project's advisory council and board of trustees. He also spent time traveling to or learning about similar institutions that exist in other nations, including Germany, Japan, Italy and France. Those museums "help to confirm that this is something that can be both an entertaining place and a place where people can get a better picture of what math is," he said. One hurdle to making the museum a reality is trying to help potential business partners, investors, volunteers and visitors envision what it would look like and how effective it could be. Enter Math Midway, which debuted in June at the World Science Festival street fair in Washington Square Park in Manhattan, where it was visited by more than 4,000 people. "It's a little hard to get across the idea, in the abstract, of what a math museum would be like," Whitney said of the Midway, an exhibit designed to serve "as a physical exhibition so people can see firsthand what is up with the math museum, what it could possibly be like."
Square-wheeled tricycles At the exhibit, Whitney - in a pink suit, a red bow tie and straw hat - stood at the center of a giant sunflower gazing down at the fairgoers as they watched people ride square-wheeled tricycles. The visitors were intrigued: "It's so counterintuitive to what you think." "How does it move with square wheels?" "It really makes you wonder how it works." As parents, children, teachers and college students gathered around the bumpy, circular track, Whitney explained how the wheels, despite not being round or symmetrical, were able to move across the peculiar surface. He was talking about a discipline called catenary geometry, and once the brief lecture was finished, he moved on to the next exhibit. At each point along his 20-station journey, Whitney would pause to take part in the activity, whether it was navigating around a No-Left-Turn Maze or constructing a man-sized tunnel out of multicolored blocks, while also informing his peers about the theory at hand.
Catenary curves Some of the attractions appeared to be more about fun than about learning, but each contained components of a mathematical concept. For instance, the fairgoers experienced a relatively smooth ride on the square-wheeled tricycle thanks to the strategically placed dips and bumps on the circular track. The track was designed based on the catenary curve equation that allows mathematicians to physically design "a road for every wheel" - the motto of the exhibit. "It's cool except it feels kind of weird," Veronica Marks, 10, of Brooklyn Heights said as she finished her fifth lap around the 16-foot-diameter plywood track. It's not expected that the museum's targeted audience, middle school students, are going to leave the museum with an understanding of catenary geometry. But some of the other exhibits - such as the Math Midway Number Line, which teaches students about everything from prime and real numbers to the Fibonacci sequence, or the Organ Function Grinder, which helps students hone their knowledge of functions and the order of operations - are directly applicable to what these students are learning in the classroom. A teacher at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Comsewogue expressed confidence in the value of a potential math museum. "Their interests are sparked," Margaret Nicolosi, 25, said of students at the Midway. "And they can take it with them back to the classroom, and then we can shape our lessons around what they're interested in."