After four years of dreaming, planning and building, the new Museum of Math (which we got a sneak peek of two weeks ago) is poised to open on Saturday, December 15—and trust us, they will come. It’s a daring move. Left brain–skewed cultural offerings at NYC museums tend to stay under the radar, and math, even in kindergarten, tends to acquire a reputation as being abstract and dull. But if MoMath founder and executive director Glen Whitney has it his way, that's all about to change in a radical way. The bilevel, $15 million dollar museum facing Madison Square Park turns conventional views of mathematics on their head with groundbreaking design, surprising aesthetic pleasures and a degree of intuitive interactivity that's rare in any museum. Most vital of all is that the museum appeals to kids' sense of fun, their innate curiosity about the world around them and their penchant for discovery. "When I saw the museum come together for the first time," Whitney says, "it was like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: being Charlie as he stepped into Willy Wonka's factory—that sense of awe." And that, says Whitney, is the whole point. "If you can make an association between math and something fun and exciting, you're setting kids up for a whole new shift in thinking about what math is," he says. Here are some engaging ways for your family to make the most of the newest of NYC museums.
Ride a square-wheeled trike
Learn how math can make things that seem impossible possible by taking a smooth ride on a square-wheeled tricycle. How exactly does it work? The wheels travel over a road of inverted catenary curves (think the undulating curves of a pie-crust edge), which keep the axles of the wheel level as the corners rotate. The exhibit came from MoMath’s precursor, Math Midway, a traveling museum Whitney debuted in 2009 at the Word Science Festival in New York City. “There’s a road for every wheel,” says Whitney of this whimsical creation.
See what cross-sections reveal
Common sense tells you that if you took a random slice of a pyramid, otherwise known as a tetrahedron, the shape you’d end up with would be a triangle. At the Wall of Fire—an exhibit consisting of an invisible plane of laser light that magically turns into a red outline when a 3-D object intersects it, illuminating the cross-section momentarily in its path—kids will learn that objects have aspects that aren’t always apparent. In this case, explorers-in-training will find the shape yields not only triangles but squares.
Feed your brain
MoMath’s in-house Enigma Café may not serve food, but the brain twisters and other puzzles this clever spot offers will sate the whole family. The café’s cutout dark wood walls, which imitate an actual eatery, are a clever riff on the design of Tetris pieces. Once inside, visitors are invited to sit at tables and chairs—the latter placed “a knight’s move” away from each other, nodding to the majestic (and mathematics-related) game of chess—to tinker with sculptural puzzles and interactive computer games. There’s a game for everyone’s math level, kids’ included. According to Whitney, only one mathematician at the opening gala was able to crack the one at the back left table.
Sit down and turn a cylinder into a vase
Among the first exhibits you’ll encounter is Hyper Hyperboloid, a chair set inside a circle surrounded by two sets of taut vertical ropes. If you sit on the chair and pivot with your feet, one set of ropes will be pulled one way, the other set another way, creating a subtle criss-cross effect. In the process, the original giant cylinder morphs into a gently curved hourglass shape, showing that it’s possible to build a curve with components that are completely straight. In fact, the technique is used all the time in building such complex structures as curved gas storage tanks.
Become a tree
One of the museum’s most fanciful (and all-ages) offerings is Human Tree. Stand in a designated spot in front of a screen and your silhouette will be turned into fractal images—repeating a pattern on an ever smaller scale—that splinter your arms into branches, twigs and leaves, all made out of mini images of yourself. Move and around and all kinds of unpredictable wonders will ensue.
Tap in to your 3-D creativity
In the seven-sided Matheneum, on the first floor, children can design a 3-D object using an interactive screen, a trackball and a throttle that lets you use "contract," "explode," "truncate" and "elevate" modes to manipulate the shape you start with. Afterward they can submit it to a contest; the regularly drawn winners will be "printed"—made into sculptures via a 3-D printer—and exhibited in the museum.
Explore a paraboloid from top to bottom
The museum’s centerpiece is String Product, a 23-foot-tall paraboloid (a 3-D parabola) inside the spiral staircase connecting the museum’s two floors. What you get out of the piece depends entirely on your math skills. The easiest: Choose two numbers on the structure, say 3 and 4, and you’ll find that the point of intersection of the strings originating at those numbers meet each other at the central axis at exactly the number 12.
Channel Close Encounters of the Third Kind
An elongated sculpture made of glowing, pastel-colored balls, Harmony of the Spheres, invites little ones to create ethereal music by exploring the minor and major chords that sound when you touch adjacent spheres. Underscoring the deep, right-brain connection between music and math, the installation just may uncover your child’s innate musical talents.
Glide over some rocky shapes
Take a ride in a Plexiglas cart over a bunch of strange, acorn-like objects and it’s bound to be pretty bumpy, you’d think. But oddly enough, it’s smooth sailing. The reason is that the shapes share a crucial property with spheres that's necessary for the ability to roll: They all have a constant diameter, no matter if they’re upside, right side up or on their side.
Get on the grid
The interactive Math Square on the lower level is a Jumbotron-like floor installation that's programmed to light up the shortest path connecting every person standing on it. If you move even slightly, that path will change, sometimes subtly and at other times in a surprisingly dramatic way. The Square’s interactive element—its "game"—will change on a regular basis.
Celebrate opening weekend
If you brave the crowds on opening weekend, the kids will not only be able to try out the museum's 30-plus exhibits but also get busy on huge construction projects using Zometool sets, a sophisticated, Tinker Toy–like building set inspired by the geometry of domes (Sat Dec 15–Sun Dec 16 11am). (Note that the museum will close at 3pm on Sunday for an event, Dimensions: The Math Puzzle Hunt, suitable for kids approximately 14 and up and adults, that begins at 3:30pm.)
The Museum of Math is located at 11 East 26th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues (212-542-0566, momath.org).