June 27, 2011
From the New York Times
by Kenneth Chang
One Math Museum, Many Variables
For everyone who finds mathematics incomprehensible, boring, pointless, or all of the above, Glen Whitney wants to prove you wrong.
He believes that tens of thousands of visitors will flock to his Museum of Mathematics, to open in Manhattan next year, and leave invigorated about geometry, numbers and many moremathematical notions.
“We want to expose the breadth and the beauty of mathematics,” said Mr. Whitney, a former math professor who parlayed his quantitative skills into a job at a Long Island hedge fund. He quit in late 2008 with connections to deep pockets and a quest to make math fun and cool.
Two years ago, he and his team built a carnival-like traveling exhibit called the Math Midway, a proof-of-concept for the coming museum. It includes a tricycle with square wheels of different sizes that visitors can ride smoothly around a circular path ridged like a flower’s petals. An accompanying sign explains why: The undulating circular surface rises and falls exactly to offset the odd shape of the wheels, so that the tricycle’s axles — and the rider — remain at the same height as they move.
Mr. Whitney hopes that colorful, interactive props will help his cause. “If we just pluck people in the street — ‘What adjectives would you use to describe math?’ — very few of them would say, ‘beautiful,’ ” Mr. Whitney said.
His vision has enticed large contributions. The museum, which will be at 11 East 26th Street, has raised $22 million, including $2 million from Google and a lot from individual donors (yes, there’s some hedge fund money in there).
It remains to be seen whether a math museum can succeed. There are currently zero math museums in the United States, and the one small one that did exist, on Long Island, closed in 2006. There are plenty of science museums that cover math topics, but Mr. Whitney’s museum, nicknamed MoMath, will be devoid of dinosaurs and planetarium shows and will instead focus on the abstract.
“They’re a dedicated bunch of idealists,” Sylvain E. Cappell, a New York University mathematician on the museum advisory council, said of Mr. Whitney and his staff.
Without a museum yet, Mr. Whitney periodically gives walking tours to point out the mathematical wonders that can be seen around Manhattan. At 42, he exudes a boyish, geeky enthusiasm as he talks about how the branches of ginkgo trees intersect at right angles more often than those of other trees, or points out that the bolts that open and close New York fire hydrants are pentagonal, rather than the usual six-sided variety.
Three years ago, he was working with algorithms at Renaissance Technologies, a private investment firm that uses mathematical models to figure out where to put money. But after a decade there, he was looking for a new career path with a “more direct socially redeeming value,” he said.
Then, he heard that the math museum on Long Island, Goudreau, had closed. He started thinking that there should be a math museum and that he should be the one to build it. “I really felt that I found my calling,” Mr. Whitney said. “I don’t mean to be grandiose, but it was something that felt like it really fit with my lifetime of experiences and abilities and likes and so on.”
Under his vision, MoMath will be one small way to bolster mathematics education in the United States. For years, American students have performed in the middle range on international comparisons of math skills, and an oft-heard worry is that the United States might lose its technological prowess.
While Mr. Whitney cites these dynamics as a reason for his quest, he is also a realist. Yes, the museum could serve as an intellectual catalyst and teaching resource, but it alone is not going to raise math scores. “I’m certainly not holding my breath for that,” he said.
Rather, he said, the museum’s mission is to shape cultural attitudes and dispel the bad rap that most people give math. “It’s the only field you can go to a cocktail party and talk to people with pride about how lousy you are,” Mr. Whitney said.
He hopes the museum can inspire at least a few to plunge into math more deeply. He imagines breaking down a piece of cutting-edge math research into pieces that enthusiastic visitors could help solve. “We want to be a place where that spark can ignite,” he said.
For Mr. Whitney, the spark came after a broken collarbone. When he was 14, he attended a math camp at Ohio State University — he saw it as a chance to get away from home for the summer, he said, not to learn math, a tedious subject that he found easy. During a soccer game, he collided with someone bigger, leaving him injured. With nothing else to do, he looked over the problem sets he had been ignoring.
The problems were different from the ones from school, spanning different branches of math and
highlighting the connections among them. “I fell in love with mathematics that summer, and I’ve had a lifetime love affair with it ever since,” he said.
After majoring in math at Harvard and earning a Ph.D. at the University of California, Los Angeles, he taught at the University of Michigan before joining Renaissance Technologies.
He commutes to a modest office in Midtown scattered with math puzzles and sculptures, where he and a team of about 20 brainstorm about exhibits for the museum, which right now is 19,000 empty square feet.
One idea is a large cube with square holes punched through each side, a structure known as a Menger sponge. When a visitor pulls the cube apart diagonally, the holes turn into six-sided stars. “It’s like a ‘gosh, that’s really cool’ kind of emotion people have,” said George Hart, the museum’s chief of content. “It’s a very nice example of how mathematics can give you these big surprises.”
The opening is more than a year away, but Mr. Whitney is already dreaming bigger: a larger museum, a palpable cultural impact.
“There are all sorts of myths about mathematics out there,” he said — math is hard, math is boring, math is for boys, math doesn’t matter in real life. “All these are cultural myths that we want to blow apart.”