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Q&A: Glen Whitney, MoMath founder, on math's image problem

Q&A: Glen Whitney, MoMath founder, on math's image problem

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Whitney talked about why math is misunderstood in the U.S. and why quiet people are more likely to be salesmen than librarians.

Once upon a time, in the mid-1980s, a tiny math museum opened in New Hyde Park, N.Y.

Glen Whitney, a mathematics professor and hedge fund algorithm manager, was among its admirers. Perhaps it was fitting, decades later, that Whitney heard the bad news while coaching at an elementary-school math competition: In 2006, the Goudreau Museum of Mathematics in Art and Science had closed for good.

That's a shame, he thought. If I'd known, I would have tried to help them stay afloat.

Then he moved on.

At least, he thought he moved on. "Subconsciously, I kept working away at this," he says, "and at some point I reached the conclusion that maybe it's okay that the Goudreau closed because that museum had remained relatively obscure. Maybe [its closing] was an opportunity to do something on a more ambitious scale."

A few years later, Whitney had raised more than $23 million to build a brand-new, 20,000-square-foot museum devoted to his favorite subject. The only museum of its kind in North America, the Museum of Mathematics opened in Manhattan on Dec. 12, 2012 (also known as the mathematician-pleasing 12/12/12).

Just eight months into its first year, MoMath -- a nickname Whitney embraces -- has attracted more visitors than he ever imagined. "There was a projection that we'd have 60,000 visitors in the first year," he says. "It's only July, and we're already at more than 120,000."

While preparing for the museum's first academic conference, which spotlights "recreational" math and began yesterday, Whitney spoke with us about tackling math's image problem, teaching it in schools, and the trials of the "mathematically illiterate."

Glen Whitney photo.jpg
How did you decide that the U.S. needed a museum devoted to mathematics?
I wanted people to be able to experience some of the beautiful and wonderful things that I'd had the chance to experience and that most people never get a chance to see. Just the way people should get a chance to view art or hear a symphony, they should also get a chance to see some of the beauty and wonder of mathematics.

A lot of people in the U.S. misunderstand math and have never had a chance to see what math is truly like. We're trying to help change that attitude. The U.S. still has some of the top mathematicians in the world, but if you want that to continue, there needs to be a pool from which those folks emerge. Therefore we need things to get people excited about math and keep them excited about math.

And you're the only math museum in North America.
That's correct.

So there are math museums in other parts of the world?
Yes, that's true. I visited the hands-on math center Mathematikum in Germany. That was definitely an inspiration. I've also visited or been visited by the Arithmeum in Germany, the Museum for Minerals and Mathematics in Germany, Mathematics Adventure Land in Dresden, Germany --

Sounds like Germany really likes math.
Well, there's a very distinguished history of mathematics there. It's likely that the museums are a reflection of the cultural stance on mathematics there. There are also math museums in South Korea, Italy, Spain, Japan, Budapest, and one is forming in Brazil.

You said earlier that math is misunderstood in the U.S. How so?
In the roughly 2,000 hours of math instruction you get in traditional K-12 school, you get a non-representative view of what mathematics as a human enterprise is like. You learn that every problem has a specific method, and it's just a matter of matching up the problem to the method. If you follow that recipe, you will get the one correct answer. There's no sense of creativity or imagination or beauty or exploration. I think exploration is at the core of what mathematics is as an enterprise.

There's also this impression that math is utterly linear. If you reach an obstacle -- whether it's something you find difficult or just don't like -- under the linear model of math, you're done. You can't proceed. Math must not be for you. That image is wrong. Mathematics is actually extremely bushy. There are so many different areas, and there's no need for people to feel that if they don't like one area, then they don't like math at all.

That partly explains math's image problem, but what else do you think contributes to that ugh, math mentality many people have?
It's a generational problem. It's okay to say to go to a cocktail party and say, 'Oh, math. I was never any good at math,' and everyone else says, 'Oh, yeah, I know what you mean, ha ha ha!' You would never say that about reading or history, but somehow it's okay with math. It's seen as this alien thing that's not really part of our world. Actually, math is connected to every possible thing you can imagine.

Let's take your morning as an example. It's almost 11 a.m. -- what mathematical techniques have you used so far today?
I've gone from the place where I stayed last night in the city to a breakfast meeting near Grand Central to the MoMath office, so I had to figure out optimal routes: subway versus taxi versus walking.

We were also just preparing a new toy created and designed by MoMath. We are doing the final design and packaging and pricing for that product, and all three of those activities involve mathematical techniques and ideas.

We're getting ready for the first math conference the museum is hosting, so we're now doing the final scheduling and trying to fit all the different events into the times allotted. Scheduling is just a packing problem in time as opposed to in space. That's a really active area of mathematics.

I wanted to ask you about that conference. What's the focus?
It's called MOVES, which stands for Mathematics of Various Entertaining Subjects. It is a math research conference that also has a track of presentations of general math activities. Its focus is on the area known as 'recreational mathematics' -- math inspired by games or sports or pastimes or problems that no one sees deep significance to but that are interesting and fun. The thing is, problems have arisen in recreational math that turned out to be of immense practical significance, and also they're something that draws people into mathematics. We have 230 mathematicians, teachers and other people interested in math coming from all over North America. We were hoping to get 100 people.

You've said that the lottery is "a tax on the mathematically illiterate."
That is probably my most-echoed quote. Of all the things I've had the lack of restraint to say in interviews, that's the one that's bounced around the most.

I was wondering if you could talk about what else the mathematically illiterate are missing out on.
Here's one that touches on more people's lives than many realize. It's called the base rate fallacy. Suppose a guy's telling you about someone he just met. He says the person had a quiet, reflective personality. Later on, you have to try to remember if the person he met was a librarian or a salesperson. All you can remember at that point is the quiet, reflective personality. You're likely going to guess librarian. But there are roughly 100 times more salespeople than there are librarians in the country. Regardless of the personality, the person is far more likely to have been a salesperson than a librarian.

If you don't have the understanding that you can't use evidence in absence of that knowledge, it's going to cause you to make mistakes. The base rate fallacy causes juries to make mistakes, it causes doctors to make mistakes, because they only look at the evidence in isolation without considering how likely is this thing I'm trying to reason about in the first place?

I'm curious to hear what your advice is for teaching math in schools.
If I could snap my fingers and make one change to how schools approach mathematics, it would be that math is taught in elementary school by math specialists. It's really important that all kids have the opportunity to learn math from someone who truly loves math and who is going to convey that love and enthusiasm.

So who got you to love math?
I actually didn't love math when I was in grade school. What was to like? It seemed very repetitive and formulaic. I ended up falling in love with math when I was 14 and went to a math summer camp. I was in a community of peers who were enthusiastic about math. Even more importantly, I broke my collarbone the first week, so then there was nothing to do but focus on the math. We built this museum so that other kids don't have to break their collarbones to fall in love with math.

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Molly Petrilla

Contributing Writer

Molly Petrilla is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. She has written for The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia magazine, Cleveland Magazine, The History Channel Magazine and The Princeton Packet. She holds a degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure