MoMath in New York: where math intersects with pleasure and art

Square-Wheeled Trike, at the National Museum of Mathematics, in New York. Photo: MoMath.

NEW YORK – Galileo Galilei once said, “Mathematics is the language with which God has written the universe.” Take a trip to the fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable National Museum of Mathematics (popularly known as MoMath) – located in a nondescript building adjacent to Madison Square Park, and within a short span of time one can understand the beauty and logic behind that line of reasoning.

Scores of quality science museums dot cities across the United States, but surprisingly, for the land that boast of having a high number of Field Medalists – the highest honor given to mathematicians since there is no Nobel Prize for the subject, as well as dominance in the International Mathematical Olympiad for high school students globally over the years – MoMath is the only museum devoted to math in North America.

A unique aspect of the museum is that it’s a place where children and adults alike can enjoy some terrific interactive exhibits, like a square-wheeled trike, where one can discover to one’s bemusement and pleasure that a ride on square wheels is not only possible, but quite smooth too. Or get behind a remote control and enjoy a “driver’s eye” view while navigating and exploring the surfaces of a Möbius strip and a trefoil knot. Or perfect how to score like an NBA champ at a hoop, using statistics on a monitor and an inclinable robotic basketball-shooter in a regulation-size free throw space.

Twisted Thruway, at the National Museum of Mathematics, in New York. Photo: MoMath.

For inquisitive math learners and buffs too, interactive exhibits like ‘Formula Morph’, where one can explore multiple number of unusual three-dimensional surfaces, or a lighted up square on the floor where one can play mathematical games, controlled by the movement of feet; or an interactive space on the wall where one can test memory by counting number of monkeys which keep changing with the turn of a handle, and to create tiling patterns called tessellations, using unusual magnetic shapes, is a satisfying experience.

A few years ago, the Atlantic reported how educators in the US stressed the importance of a solid math education – including in areas like geometry and even trigonometry – for all students, whether they go into engineering or philosophy, college or the workforce.

In a way, MoMath is an excellent place and opportunity for students who dislike or are in awe of math to quell their fear and anxiety associated with the subject. Enigmatic shapes, numbers usually seen in a text form come to life in a real world-like situation. Problems solved with relative ease; quandary gives way to confidence.

Hoop Curves, at the National Museum of Mathematics, in New York. Photo: MoMath.

There’s a sense of how the real world of math, away from chapters in books is not too far in scope and method from other trendier endeavors, like eSports.

MoMath also features, through January 5, 2020, an exquisite side exhibition of paper folding within its confines, “Math Unfolded: An Exhibit of Mathematical Origami Art”, which has 66 pieces of art made by 24 artists from around the world. It may come as a surprise to some that for a city that houses OrigamiUSA, an American body that is devoted to the art of paper folding which originated in Japan – and has its own library too across town, the MoMath exhibition is the first of its kind in the Big Apple.

The origami artwork, which looks scrumptious and inspires similar awe as for bigger installations made from materials more vexatious to work with than paper, would hold pride of place pretty much anywhere, including the Museum of Modern Art.

Delve a little into the life of the artists themselves who have molded extremely vulnerable and perishable paper into awesomely perfect miniature contours and shapes, brought them to statuesque life – much like master sculptors who work with metal and stone, and one realizes that most of them are mathematicians who have used their knowledge into making these veritable works of cherished art.

The exhibition includes commentary explaining the mathematical ideas and concepts that were used by each artist to transform a piece of paper into a compelling work of art that embodies the beauty of mathematics. It also explores origami that has been created using the same mathematical algorithms used to design technology such as airbags, solar arrays, medical stents, and temporary shelters in disaster relief.

The Five Intersecting Tetrahedra, by Tom Hull, at the National Museum of Mathematics, in New York. Photo: Sujeet Rajan.

The section features artwork from the world’s most highly regarded origami artists currently working at the intersection of art and mathematics, including: Robert Lang, Erik Demaine, Charlene Morrow, Adrienne Sack, Matt Shlian, WinWin, Ben Fritzson, Ben Parker, Chris Palmer, Jeannine Mosely, Kate Lukesheva, Alessandra Lamio, Jason Ku, Duks Koschitz, Satoshi Kamiya, Beth Johnson, Tom Hull, David Huffman, Faye Goldman, Rebeca Geiseking, Marty Demaine, Joel Cooper, Serena Cicaló, and Alessandro Beber.

But the origami section can certainly be enjoyed in a ‘non-mathematical’ way. For some, especially from the subcontinent, it may relive memories of making crude paper planes and boats in school that one used to let fly in classrooms, and when it rained and created pools of water in yards and neighborhood streets.

Cindy Lawrence, CEO and Executive Director of MoMath, gives further insight into the real import of the origami exhibition, curated by Charlene Morrow: “This exhibition will educate our visitors about the various geometric shapes, designs, and mathematical patterns used to design origami, and where they can find these same mathematical designs in the world around us.”

Morrow explained that origami offers “a very rich environment for exploring the interplay between mathematics and art,” adding, “Origami offers an alternative way to gaze into mathematics’ beautiful soul. I want visitors to be amazed about what an artist can do with a piece of paper, and then realize they are looking at the expression of beautiful mathematical ideas.”

(Sujeet Rajan is Executive Editor, Parikh Worldwide Media. Email him: Follow him on Twitter @SujeetRajan1)



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