New York City is known for its assortment of quirky and oddly specific museums, whether it’s gems like the Morbid Anatomy Museum, the cabinet of curiosities that is the City Reliquary, or the sheer weirdness of the Torah Animal World (a collection of taxidermied critters from the Old Testament, all lovingly arranged in a Hasidic rabbi’s home). And yet, somehow, until a friend invited me to “an evening of mathemagical mystique,” I had never heard of the Museum of Mathematics. Even though it’s billed as “the coolest thing that ever happened to math!”
Located on two levels, the museum actively encourages visitors to really get a feel for math through puzzles, games, and interactive displays. Some of the games include a Turing-esque encryption machine, using numerical sequences to best a computer, using 2D-cross sections of different shapes to create a 3D-figure, and a whole set of puzzles and logic games (my friend and I got cocky after solving a jigsaw-like car-parking puzzle and were rapidly humbled by the metal equivalent of a Chinese finger trap).
Another amusing game is the Beaver Run, in which knobs allow you to manipulate the tracks on which two toy beavers travel.
Sadistic as I am, I tried to make the two beavers crash into each other. After watching me with bemusement for a while, a patient staff member explained to me that this isn’t possible; the configuration of the tracks ensures that the beavers are always traveling in the same direction and at the same speed, and the track segments can’t actually be turned while a beaver is traveling on them. Still, it’s great fun to try.
The museum and its clever staff also host many themed events with a mathematical twist. Although that may cause some to suffer flashbacks of their tortured high-school calculus days, the events are surprisingly chill. Thursday’s Valentine’s Day-themed event featured “live demonstrations of the math of mutual choice.” In other words, math was used to explain why you just can’t find a nice chap on Tinder: it’s because you keep swiping left without a single strategy in the hopes of finding your mystical dating unicorn. By using numbers instead of hot dudes posing with rescue puppies, contestants were encouraged to see whether they could end up with the highest number by using strategies of probability to get the best possible match.
The crowd, a mix of smartly dressed after-work professionals, start-up lads in vests, and one severely underdressed journalist (me), were encouraged by a staff member to use the numbers-based IRL Tinder to develop a strategy to determine when to swipe left and when to finally settle. While the nagging doubt that there could always be a higher number (read: something better) right behind the next swipe made us run out of swipes pretty quickly the first couple of times, a strategy was eventually developed: swipe left on the first five to seven profiles in order to get a sense of the range of numbers in the deck, and then swipe right on the next best profile that came along. Depending on your point of view, this could either be very encouraging or very depressing.
The museum, which has been around since December of 2012, has a whole series of events lined up for the upcoming months, including cocktail-fueled math competitions and, naturally, a packed schedule for Pi Day (March 13). Taking the adjacent gift shop with nerd-tastic games and apparel into account, even the most hardened math-phobes are bound to come to the conclusion that math can sometimes be, dare we say it, fun?
National Museum of Mathematics, 11 East 26th Street, between Madison and 5th Ave. Open 7 days a week from 10am to 5pm. 212-542-0566