Maths at the Science Museum

Tom, third year of his PHD, and me, second year of teaching, met to investigate the much-publicised Mathematics Gallery that the Sceince Museum. Designed by Zaha Hadid but opened after her death, cool purples and huge sinuous forms inspired by the fluid dynamics of flight. Beautiful space.

The gallery website states: “Our bold and thought-provoking new gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, examines the fundamental role mathematicians, their tools and ideas have played in building the world we live in.” It does this by exhibiting objects, such as an electricity pylon or a lottery machine, that have been influenced by mathematical ideas.
There are a number of things that drove us slightly crazy:

  •  There was only one meaningful mathematical statement in the entire exhibiton (or if there were more they were too hidden for a 2 hour visit to find). It was a diagram showing the angle between lines from a boat to the sun and the moon. Alex Bellos is happy in his review to compromise knowledge of the maths involved – for him revelling in the beauty of the objects on show is enough. We found the absence of link between maths and the objects in front of us annoying.
  •  There was not a single object that is less than 20 years old on show. The most modern thing was a Mathematica textbook. This is sending out the message that Maths has finished its contribution to the world around us. A historical curiosity rather than a pillar of the modern environment.
  •  There was only one interactive you could play around with, but the sliders lagged and froze, and the maths was far from obvious. If the only thing you can do on an interactive touch screen is scroll through text, then don’t bother buying an interactive touch screen, buy bigger cardboard.
  •  The curators were surely aiming to win the World Record for number of variants on the phrase “…which could only have been understood using complex mathematics”. The number of synonyms for “complex mathematics” was mindboggling. The idea that “it is too hard to explain this” either patronises the audience as flitty idiots or reveals a lack of imagination in the curation.
  •  A child would come away from this exhibition thinking “If I wanted to be a ____ (insert jobs such as shipbuilder, radar mechanic, architect), ___ years ago (insert number that is at least 50) then maybe I would have to know maths. I don’t, so as I suspected, learning about congruent triangles is BORING”.
  •  There was not a single piece of pure mathematics on show. (The previous gallery has racks of beautifully crafted glass Klein bottles, for example.)


I have been loving Dan Meyer’s hilarious Pseudo-Context Game (every Saturday he posts a photo from a textbook and asks his readership to guess the maths the textbook author wants the students to learn). Inspired by this, one of us would only look at the object and the other would give three options for how maths links to it.

Was this model here to handwave about the mathematics of the bow, about the most efficient journey a ship should take on a sphere, or the best way to pack objects into a ship?

Here are some ideas to improve the exhibition (for my reference when I open a Maths Museum in 15 years time)

  •  Include pure maths – some people enjoy maths for its own sake
  •  Include any maths – don’t patronise the audience
  •  Include playing with maths – situations where viewers can predict, hypothesise, change variables and consider how that affects outcomes


Megan, after a school trip with Yr2 students, recommended a visit to the new interactive gallery, WonderLab. Torrents of young families crowded in to play with air currents and magnetism, with two unabashed men running round too. Ridiculously more fun than the Maths Gallery, so why would anyone ever choose Maths over Science? Things we thought about:

  •  How many pulleys should I use to pull my weight up? (Think toddlers in car seats delightedly pulling themselves up high into the air)
  •  Why is my nose cold? (Infra-red camera)

    Beard insulates
  •  How much background radiation is there in this room? (An INCREDIBLE display, just an analogue particle detector, in which you could see the traces of electrons muons, alpha particles)
  •  How can I create standing waves? (You could control oscillations at both ends of a 3m bit of rope, to create standing waves with up to 6 nodes – mesmerising)

    Tom conducting ropes
  •  How can I make things float in space? (Magnets, magnets, magnets)
  •  Can I hear through my teeth? (Bite down on a metal rod, fingers in your ears, and the music vibrates through your skull to your eardrums)

We were thoroughly immersed in what the curator calls “The serious nature of play” – if I just tweak this a tiny bit more than maybe… What if we… I never thought that…
The maths section here mostly consisted of puzzles (Tangram and Rush Hour Game). All games that could have been played on an ipad but were presented in pleasing wooden blocks. Fun but not deeply generalisable to fundamentals of maths in the same way that some of the scientific wondergasms were.


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