[Editor's note: To celebrate the history of math and its impact on the world, IBM has released Minds of Modern Mathematics, a free iPad app that re-imagines a classic 50-foot infographic on the history of math that was part of the Mathematica exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. Eric Siegel, director and chief content officer of the New York Hall of Science, says the exhibit remains relevant to this day. Join the conversation on Twitter: #math #Eames]
In 1961, IBM commissioned Charles and Ray Eames to create an exhibition for the California Museum of Science and Industry. The resulting exhibition, called Mathematica: a World of Numbers, is a founding document of interactive STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) exhibitions.
As Charles Eames observed, Mathematica was intended to enlighten the amateur without embarrassing the specialist. In the early 2000’s, the California Science Center — as it is now called — refurbished and exhibition and put it on the road.
At the end of that run, the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) in Queens, NY, purchased the exhibition, and spent the following three years refurbishing and gently updating Mathematica.
There was a duplicate copy made of the exhibition, most of which is still on display at the Museum of Science in Boston. NYSCI now has the only complete copy of this brilliant integration of creativity and scientific thinking. And it is so appropriate to have it at NYSCI, which also grew from the mid-sixties optimism and enthusiastic public embrace of science.
As you can imagine, I welcomed the news that Mathematica has inspired an iPad app, Minds of Modern Mathematics.
One of the few memories I have of the 1964 Worlds Fair is a featured element in Mathematica: a large probability machine in which balls ping their way through a kind of pachinko machine and settle in a normal distribution curve at the bottom. The brilliant thing about this piece is the theatricality of the sound and drama of the balls tumbling down, combined with a quite subtle and deep explanation of normal distribution curves.
Unlike many contemporary exhibits, there is a fair amount of accompanying text presented in an in idiosyncratic style that reflects the Eames’ fascination with the circus.
In addition to probability, there is a brilliant interactive on projective geometry (not a phrase that I ever imagined I would say) that never fails to elicit a “wow” from visitors and a beautiful and elegant series of boxes that dip into soapy water revealing bubble coatings that illustrate the principal of least surfaces. Children love pressing their noses up against the glass cover of the Celestial Mechanics vortex, watching steel balls race each other down into a “gravity well.”
Above is the Mathematica Timeline as it is installed at NY Hall of Science, with a computer kiosk extending into the 21st century.
The exhibition is timeless, other than updating some internal mechanisms, we have not found any need or reason to modify it, with one exception. One entire wall of Mathematica features a detailed timeline of the development of math thinking, featuring thinkers as far back as 1000 AD, and continuing until 1960. Of course much has happened since 1960, so we have made a interactive computer kiosk that continues the timeline into the 21st century.
We have long been familiar with the videos that accompanied or amplified aspects of Mathematica, but have not had them on display as they were not displayed with the original exhibition. But the Math Peep Shows, and above all Powers of 10, are masterpieces of translating complex topics in science, math and big data to a lay audience without “dumbing down.”
You can follow Eric at theworks.nysci.org and on Twitter @erictsiegel