Home A Museum Math Exhibit That Has Withstood the Test of Time

A Museum Math Exhibit That Has Withstood the Test of Time

If you weren’t old enough to remember the 1964 New York World’s Fair, you still have a chance to see one of the more wonderful exhibits that has stood the test of time and can be found lurking in the corners of a few major science museums around the world. In the exhibit, you ascend into an egg-shaped theater showing a multimedia presentation that explains the potential of computing to help humankind. It has a 50-foot timeline with hundreds of different artifacts.

The exhibit was based on something called Mathematica, which was created by the famed husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames on behalf of IBM. It was originally built for the California Museum of Science and Industry near downtown Los Angeles and was actually part of the museum from the early 1960s until 1998. The exhibit included playful animated films also created by the Eameses that offered two-minute lessons on symmetry, powers of numbers and other mathematical concepts.

Today IBM has released a free iPad app called Minds of Modern Mathematics. The app takes the photographs and other vintage materials that were used to create this exhibit and packages it into a nice, browsable collection. The app is being released during the centennial year of Ray Eames’ birth.

You can look back on nearly a thousand years of major math events and timelines showing which mathematicians lived when. There is a lot of stuff to read and there are pictures of the mathematicians’ accomplishments. It is all very well done, and to this once-undergraduate math major, it’s still very exciting and interesting.

The Eameses were responsible for many design innovations, including molded plywood chairs (see the lead photo) and other practical furniture. They were excellent communicators, and among other projects, they made short educational films – which many of us saw during science class back in the day when filmstrips and overhead projectors were in our classrooms. This was in the era before CGI and special effects, and yet the videos were powerful and simple efforts that got some very complex concepts across.

One of their most potent films was something they did in 1977, which I remember seeing for the first time in the Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. Tucked away amongst the old planes and rocketry was a small exhibit called “The Powers of Ten” and a movie that you can see below. We start with a picnic along Lake Michigan in Chicago and the camera angle is a square meter. Our point of view zooms into space and for every second, we increase the field of view by a power of ten. Soon we are moving into the outer reaches of our galaxy and then into what is largely empty space. We then return back to earth and go into the microscopic world, down to the atomic level.

I must have stood in front of that 10-minute film and watched it about 17 times, fascinated by the whole thing. IBM sponsored that particular film, too.

You can download the iPad app here. And if you are interested in learning more about the Eameses, check out the website EamesOffice.com. If you are in the New York or Boston area, the original exhibit can still be found in the cities’ science museums. That to me shows how good the Eameses were: Something that can stand the test of more than 50 years is still educating present-day audiences.

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