SIAM News Blog

Seriously Fun Math!

Noticing the approach of December 5, 2013, Glen Whitney and Cindy Lawrence, co-executive directors of the National Museum of Mathematics in NYC, together with chief of design Tim Nissen, went into action. It was time for a public event, one that would draw people into a celebration of an accessible, well-known piece of mathematics.

Readers will realize the significance of 12/5/13. For Lawrence and Whitney, the numbers translated into the need for 450 glow sticks. And 450 people, presumably lovers of mathematics, who would turn out on a December evening to line up, one glow stick each, to measure the three sides of a local landmark, the Flatiron Building, demonstrating that they make up a Pythagorean triangle.

That’s a lot of people for a math event. Maybe, Lawrence and Whitney thought, they could tape two glow sticks together. . . . Or bring some people to the city for a board meeting. . . .

In the end, a message to MoMath’s mailing list drew some 2000 volunteers. On the evening of December 5, a Thursday, 450 of the volunteers—of all ages, sizes, and walks of life—carried out their mission, with a backdrop of projections on each side of the Flatiron, as shown in the accompanying photos. 

Lawrence and Whitney, describing the event to SIAM News at their booth at the 2014 Joint Mathematics Meetings, looked forward to future public-participation events. The topics are secret for now, they said. 

Meanwhile, Lawrence mentioned another MoMath activity that should be of interest to college students—summer internships at the museum (which overlooks Madison Square Park and is just a few blocks from its triangular neighbor). Interns divide their time between working on the floor, where they guide visitors through the exhibits; honing their administrative skills; and working in the retail shop. Interns’ preferences are honored to some extent, Lawrence says, but they’re choosy about the people they trust to work the exhibits. Clearly, a good grasp of the mathematical concepts is required, but it must be accompanied by an understanding that not everyone thinks like a math major. The museum is currently accepting applications for the summer internship program ([email protected]).

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