of the exhibition.
and Charles with a model of Mathematica.
by Pearl Tesler
Exploratorium staff writer
Where math is concerned, people seem to
fall into one of two camps: the fanatics and the phobics. The fanatics
have bumper stickers on their cars that say things like, "Lottery:
a tax on math illiteracy" and "2 + 2 = 5 for extremely
large values of 2." The phobics break into a sweat at just
the thought of balancing their checkbooks.
Fanatics and phobics alike stand to be inspired by the exhibition
opening at the Exploratorium on October 6th. Mathematica: A World
of Numbers and Beyond is a collection of all that is wild and wonderful
in mathematics, from age-old paradoxes like the Möbius strip
to the more modern subfield of topology. Visually rich and lauded
as a classic of exhibition design, Mathematica helps dispel the
pervasive myth of math as an abstract morass of numbers.
For example, many embittered students have suffered through grading
on a bell curve, a mystical statistical entity that, when applied
to the classroom setting, decrees that there will be mainly C students,
fewer B and D students, and just a sprinkling of A and F students.
But the bell curve isn't just some evil plot; it's a real and ubiquitous
natural phenomenon. In Mathematica, you can witness spontaneous
formations of an in-the-flesh bell curve, as 30,000 plastic balls
fall through a maze of 200 pegs into a series of slots, invariably
forming the same pattern.
Other features of the exhibition: an Image Wall of mathematical
visualizations, a History Wall that documents the evolution of mathematics
(mainly Western) since a.d. 1100, and interactive exhibits on minimal
surfaces, multiplication, reflection and projection geometry, and
it showcases compelling artifacts of mathematical exploration, the
exhibition is an artifact unto itself, created in 1961 by famed
modernist designers, Charles and Ray Eames. This husband-and-wife
team is best known for their revolutionary architectural and industrial
design, including a legendary and much-copied 1946 bent plywood
chair that has come to represent an inspired, humanized approach
to mass production. The Eames's delight in mathematics is evoked
in one reviewer's description of the iconic chair: "The back
panel might be described as a rectangle about to turn into an oval,
the transformation being arrested at a point midway between the
two shapes." (next