December 5, 2011
From Barron's Cover
by Michelle Slatalla
Math excites Glen Whitney. He believes it should excite you, too. This is why Whitney, a former algorithms specialist at the famously math-loving hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, has raised more than $22 million to open a New York City museum to glorify a subject that many Americans loathe by middle school. "We're trying to create a safe place to love math," Whitney says.
The Museum of Math, with 9,000 square feet of exhibits, will open its doors in Manhattan late next year. The museum will feature square-wheeled tricycles that offer a smooth ride over a grooved surface of catenary curves, a roulette wheel to teach probability theory and an opening exhibit so cool -- Whitney is sure of this -- that parents won't begrudge paying $15 per adult and $9 per kid for admission.
"You'll see a two-story-tall sculpture, made of taut, wiry airplane cables -- it's all straight lines -- and then you can actually walk inside of it and see the shape transform," Whitney says. "And you'll realize you can make an elegant curved shape out of straight lines."
Aimed at fourth- through eighth-graders, the museum's goal is to make kids think math is fun. Which most probably don't: By eighth grade, only 35% are proficient, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That bugs Whitney. "We already have a shortage of people who are adept enough in math to fill all the positions available that require math skills," he says. "It's a large societal problem: America doesn't like math."
Consider Whitney's own experience. Growing up in New Jersey, he was so good at numbers that by second grade his teachers recommended he skip to the fourth grade. Yet, he says, "I didn't like math, maybe because it was dismissed as a tool to use if you want to understand something else. Who loves a hammer?"
It wasn't until Whitney went to math camp as a teen that he started to see the fun. By the time he was 30, he was a math professor at the University of Michigan when. There, in 1997, he got an e-mail from a former boss he'd worked for at IBM during a long-ago summer internship: "I'm at Renaissance now. How would you like to sell out and join us?"
Whitney spent the next 10 years at the hedge fund, where the legendary quantitative trader Jim Simons had created an extraordinary analytical system. "The particle collider at Brookhaven National Lab might possibly generate more data than Renaissance processes on a daily basis," says Whitney, "but there's not much else that does."
All those algorithms paid off for Renaissance and for Whitney. But after a decade of making money, he wanted to figure out how to spend it to help the world (in a quantifiable, pro-math way, of course).
He started coaching kids in math, first at his daughter's school, on Long Island, and later through a high-school enrichment program he launched at the Brookhaven labs. He showed up there on a recent Saturday morning with a bag full of red plastic triangles and snapped them together to form three-dimensional shapes as he talked about his work: "When you start to play with things, to think deeply about them, you see such a range of surprising and beautiful things -- look, I made a flying saucer polyhedron."
The Museum of Math is the first of its kind in North America. "Certainly there's a need; it's a no-brainer," says Jeremy Kilpatrick, co-chair of the National Academy of Education's committee on math and science education. "We manage to kill off the interest that little kids have in it. Maybe this museum can help change that."
In hindsight, it all seems so obvious. But Whitney saw it first.