Math is key to everything, from music and art to the sequencing of traffic lights and the scheduling of package deliveries.
Just figuring out the order in which you’ll run a bunch of errands involves math and the process of optimization, says Cindy Lawrence, executive director and CEO of MoMath, the National Museum of Mathematics, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.
Understanding math helps you understand the world, observes Lawrence.
"I love the way math allows creative thinking to solve problems and the way there are often hidden and delightful surprises when you explore the world using math," Lawrence said.
When MoMath opened its doors in Manhattan on 12/12/12, a date befitting an institution of math, Lawrence was surprised by the warm reception.
"There was a line of people waiting outside from the first day," said Lawrence, 55, of Mount Sinai.
Since then, MoMath — the only physical museum in the United States devoted solely to mathematics — has welcomed more than 1 million visitors, presenting programs for students, teachers and the public with a goal of enhancing the understanding and appreciation of mathematics.
The road to opening
In 2008, Lawrence learned from Glen Whitney, a mathematician and member of her temple, that the Goudreau Museum of Mathematics in Art and Science in New Hyde Park had closed two years earlier.
When Whitney explained that he sought to open a similar, albeit more ambitious, institution and wasn’t making much headway, Lawrence connected him to Peter Eaton, her children’s fifth-grade math teacher at Clinton Avenue School in Port Jefferson Station, and his friends who’d worked at the shuttered institution.
From there, they formed a working group, of a few dozen volunteers who met monthly to brainstorm ideas for opening a small, 5,000-square-foot museum in or around Stony Brook University, at a cost of about $6 million.
The working group, which at the time didn’t have much more than a few ideas, was invited to participate in the 2009 World Science Festival in New York and to develop a traveling math exhibit.
While the rest of her peers hesitated, Lawrence recalled telling them, " ‘We just have to say yes. And, then we’ll figure it out.’ "
Working as a CPA at DeVry, a CPA exam review company, but with no museum experience, Lawrence volunteered to find a design firm to develop the project. Serendipitously, she was able to hire Ralph Appelbaum Associates, a premier design firm for museum exhibits worldwide, eagerly seeking business during the slow economy in 2009.
In a whirlwind five months, the working group and Appelbaum Associates created "Math Midway," an exhibit that included a square-wheeled tricycle participants could ride along a special track.
"Whereas you think about a square wheel, and you think that can’t roll, but it turns out if you use a little math, you can figure out what shape the track should be to mate perfectly with a rolling square," Lawrence explained.
Traveling the country for five years, "Math Midway" proved a huge hit, stopping in 2010 at The Gallery on the Hill in Farmingville, former home of Brookhaven Arts and Humanities Council, and the Ward Melville Heritage Organization in Stony Brook.
With the exhibit bringing math to life in a fun and interesting way, the working group raised $23 million in 18 months, paving the way to open a math museum in 2012 in Manhattan, where it would draw a larger audience.
Whitney, who was part of MoMath’s opening, moved to the West Coast several years after it opened.
Lifelong love of learning
As a child growing up in Port Jefferson Station, Lawrence was a good math student, but at the start of second grade, realized she’d forgotten how to do subtraction.
"I still remember very keenly the sense of frustration, of feeling stupid, that a lot of people describe when they talk about why they don’t like math," she said.
That feeling has stayed with her, helping to inform MoMath’s exhibits and programs, Lawrence explained, "to make sure that we find a way to meet everyone wherever they are in their math journey, and to allow them to personally experience the wonder and joy of whatever we are presenting."
At the University of Buffalo, Lawrence considered majoring in math, but, unable to envision a career using the subject, opted for a degree in business administration, followed by an MBA from Hofstra University.
"I think we don’t do a great job of telling kids who love math all the different things they can do with it," Lawrence said.
Through SUNY Old Westbury’s Institute for Creative Problem Solving for Gifted and Talented Students, a yearlong program her three children attended, Lawrence reconnected to math, beginning in 2002, with her son, David.
"For me, it was like coming back to an old love," said Lawrence, who runs a monthly math program for gifted students through Brookhaven National Laboratory. "To me, math is something you play with. It’s something fun."
Lawrence clearly passed along her love for the discipline to her children, all of whom took math courses at Stony Brook University while in high school.
These days, David, 29, works as an electrical engineer in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and both Rachel, 26, a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley, and Hannah, 23, a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, majored in applied mathematics and are studying theoretical computer science.
Math = cool + fun
As it explores concepts of higher-level mathematics, MoMath aims to make them accessible to anyone.
Some exhibits are basic and hands-on, like the organization’s original square-wheeled tricycle, and can lead visitors along an intellectual path; others are open-ended, like Tesselation Station, where tiles create patterns that never repeat, said Tim Nissen, MoMath’s associate director and exhibition designer.
Electronic interpretive decks, or touch screens near the exhibits, provide more in-depth information about the mathematics, said Nissen, 63, who grew up in Port Washington. In "Wall of Fire," lasers slice objects, revealing hidden shapes and illustrating the relationship between two and three dimensions. When sliced in a certain direction, a cylinder becomes rectangular; a cube transforms into a triangle or a hexagon.
"That’s just surprising and beautiful and fun," Lawrence said. "That’s just an example of something in math that we don’t necessarily teach people about, but it’s really cool."
Demonstrating the link between sports and math, "Hoop Curves" allows kids to take free throws that are tracked for height, speed and angle.
"We will find a way to connect with you through mathematics. That’s true, whether you like art, music, sports or any number of other disciplines that we have managed to tie to mathematics," Lawrence said.
Recent exhibits included exploring the relationship between art and origami; the works of Anton Bakker, who creates sculptures using mathematical algorithms; and a live event with Bobby Sanabria, who re-imagined the music of "West Side Story" with a Latin jazz vibe, illustrating the mathematical foundation of musical rhythm.
Eaton, who retired in 2012, says he wishes MoMath had existed when he was teaching because it aligns perfectly with his philosophy of exposing children to all forms of math.
"That’s what this museum does," said Eaton, 78, of Port Jefferson Station. "It explains mathematics and how it’s connected to music, science, all of the humanities, everyday life."
A subject for all
To counter the historical predominance of white men in the field of mathematics, the museum has developed initiatives including "Bending the Arc" and "The Limit Does Not Exist," offering examples of Black and female mathematicians through panel and group discussions.
"I’m a very big believer in anybody can do math," Lawrence said. "And, unfortunately, not anybody does math."
As a "Bending the Arc" panelist, John Urschel, an African American former lineman for the Baltimore Ravens who is now a mathematician and MoMath board member, demonstrated how a career in computer science, law, medicine or similar fields can be more rewarding, financially and otherwise, and last longer than a few years playing professional football.
If anyone’s dream is to play in the NFL, Urschel says he won’t try to dissuade them, but adds "that the financial benefits are often overblown and overstressed, especially in low-income communities, and the benefits of a good job in STEM aren’t appreciated enough."
With a staff that is 50% female, the museum itself aims for greater inclusivity and has a diverse 24-member board of directors, one quarter of whom are female.
People have a fallacy that you’re either good or bad at math, observed Lawrence.
"There’s always going to be some kids that are innately talented in something or another: math, music, art," she said. "But that doesn’t mean that other kids can’t have a career in it. And we should be encouraging all kids."
A professor of mathematics at Princeton University, Manjul Bhargava met Lawrence on the Long Island Rail Road seven years ago when she recognized him — and used the opportunity to introduce herself and MoMath. He has since become a museum trustee and served as a visiting professor in 2018-19.
"I was immediately impressed with Cindy’s enthusiasm, commitment and dedication to making the museum as awesome as possible," said Bhargava, 47, who grew up in Bethpage. "Right on the train, I was recruited and excited to be a part of it."
After seven years at the helm of Manhattan’s only hands-on math museum, Lawrence’s enthusiasm has not waned.
"It was definitely a labor of love and a passion project. And it still is," she said.
For MoMath’s next decade, Lawrence hopes to move to a larger space, where they can add classrooms to accommodate more school groups, including preschoolers, and add a cafeteria. The museum also anticipates increasing its digital presence to reach a broader audience.
"And I also hope we can expand our reach and find ways to make sure that people from groups that have been historically underrepresented in mathematics find a welcome home," she said.
MoMath, National Museum of Mathematics, is open daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; 11 E. 26th St., Manhattan; 212- 542-0566; momath.org; admission: adults, $25; seniors and children 12 and under, $20; children under 2, free.
Popular permanent exhibits
- PolyPaint: Visitors "paint" on a giant electronic canvas using mathematical symmetry groups. No matter how the paintbrush moves across the canvas, it creates a perfectly symmetrical pattern.
- Human Tree: Visitor "selfie" images repeat at ever-smaller sizes, effectively turning people into human fractals.
- Math Square: Visitors’ feet generate curved- and heart-shaped designs using only straight lines, or they create a pattern of moving colors using a "Voronoi" diagram.
- Tessellation Station: Using monkeys, dinosaurs, rabbits and other shapes, visitors fill a wall without any gaps or overlaps.
- In the MoMath gallery (composite.momath.org), Building Beauty: The Harmonograph Art of Ivan Moscovich. At the intersection of math, engineering and art, this show features two working harmonographs, one on loan from Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton.
- And online, the 2022 MoMath Masters (masters.momath.org) turns math into a spectator sport, featuring YouTube phenom Grant Sanderson (3Blue1Brown) and Living Colour percussionist Will Calhoun.