MoMath No Problems: North America’s Only Math Museum Now Open in Madison Square

2012-12-13 15.42.32

Through these doors lie all the answers. (Kit Dillon)

For North American math museums, like so much, in the beginning there was nothing.  Then, for a moment, there was one. A good start, but it didn’t last long. Soon, there was nothing again. But on Saturday, The National Museum of Mathematics—or MoMath, as the founders like to call it—opened it’s doors to the public and the intangible becomes tangible once more. Zero becomes one, mathematicians rejoice.

MoMath, the mad dream of founder and executive director Glen Whitney, faces out onto the north side of Madison Square Park with 19,000-square-feet of exhibition space and 30 odd exhibits.  Exhibits like The Hyper Hyperboloid, a spinning swivel chair surrounded by a circle of floor-to-ceiling ropes, which, when turned, allows you to construct and surround yourself in the elegant contours of a quadratic equation. It’s more fun than it may sound. Or, go to the Mathenaeum, the seven-sided, geometric sculpture studio, and transform basic shapes into—sometimes never-before-seen—original objects. It’s something that The Observer, to our surprise, found fun. (We promptly hid our lunch money for fear of the nerd vibes we might put out, though.)

While walking through the exhibits, it’s not hard to see their appeal for all children and not just the mathematically inclined ones either, things light up, lasers shoot out of walls, sometimes when you hit stuff it makes music. Oh, to be a kid again.

But that’s exactly the point behind MoMath, Mr. Whitney explained. He spent more than $23 million on the project, raised from the likes of Google and Oppenheimer Funds, to create a place where geek meets sleek.

“I thought there should really be a national museum of mathematics, a museum that has a broad scope,” Mr. Whitney said. “When the Goudreau Museum in Long Island closed, there was nothing. I wanted something to give people a chance to see mathematics for what it really is. Here children can see why a parabola lets you multiply numbers, they can walk on an interactive program floor, they can turn themselves into a fractal.”

“Somebody stop me!” he cried out, only half-joking.

The creators of MoMath are projecting that the enthusiasm translates into 60,000 visitors a year. “Six times 10 to the fourth,” Mr. Whitney pointed out. To that end the museum is open 364 days a year, closed only on Thanksgiving. It’s important to get people through the door, because a museum like this comes at a cost. Mo’Math, a 501c3 charity, and as it is now, represents, $6 million in renovations, $9 million so far in exhibits and a projected $3 to $4 million yearly operating budget.

But the numbers don’t seem to phase Mr. Whiney, who’s had experience with amounts much larger than this. “I worked for a mathematically based trading firm for over a decade,” he said, looking down rather sheepishly. “I had a great time. It was very interesting. Very intellectually demanding. Lots of interesting problems to solve. But for me, in the end, I didn’t feel like what I was doing on a day to day basis was making anybody’s life better or changing anybody’s life. Yes, our investments were profitable.  But that’s sort of a second order thing. I wanted to be involved with people and reach out to them.”

In Mo’Math he may have found his answer.

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