He's Making Us Scream for Mo' Math

He's Making Us Scream for Mo' Math

By Farah Halime

SourceMichael Nagle / The New York Times / Redux


Because there’s a lot of bad teaching to undo.

By Farah Halime

If you’re ever put on hold when you call the National Museum of Mathematics, or MoMath for short, you’ll hear a ’90s-style remix of a man rapping “This is a … This is a … This is a Tetraxis,” about a set of triangular prisms that lock together satisfyingly to form a Rubik’s Cube on acid. The voice is that of Glen Whitney, a former hedge funder and founder of the only math museum in the U.S. 

The 47-year-old breaks every cliché of an unworldly, introverted mathematician, appearing once at a MoMath gala as “Captain Math,” cape and all. “From discovering the structure of DNA to the founding of the Bank of New York, math has been involved in most human endeavors that created a big accomplishment,” says the small-framed aficionado, speaking in the eerily quiet MoMath an hour before opening time. Eight years ago, Whitney had just ended a decade working for Renaissance Technologies, a highly secretive and successful hedge fund. Today, his Manhattan museum offers at least a dozen classes a week and has seen 500,000 visitors since it opened in 2012.

MoMath was born when a math museum on Long Island, the last one in the country, closed in 2006. Whitney left his job and helped raise $22 million from investors like Google Inc. and the $30 billion Wall Street firm Two Sigma to open MoMath on the mathematician-pleasing Dec. 12, 2012, or 12/12/12. Many of MoMath’s 35 exhibits encourage a hands-on experience — like Pattern Pants, a projector that spits radical designs onto clothes, providing a “mathematical makeover,” or the Mathenaeum, with which visitors transform basic shapes into original designs using mathematical processes like snubbing (adding sides to a shape to reimagine it). It’s a favorite concept of Whitney’s: “I think snubbing is just way cool,” he says, twiddling the device’s nobs excitedly.

There’s even a space to ride a square-wheeled tricycle over a circuit of catenary curves (the perfect curve created when a chain or cable is supported only at its ends — picture, for example, how a power cable hangs across a street). The catenary curve is just another one of Whitney’s campaigns to stump for otherwise unloved mathematical figures. “We hear about various shapes, like a triangle and circle, but what about the catenaries or the parabolas, which is the arc of a ball when it is thrown?” he says, swinging his arm to illustrate.

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Inside MoMath.

Source MoMath

Whitney’s enthusiasm for what has traditionally been textbook territory, like fractals and tessellations, shocked his former boss Jim Simons, the founder of Renaissance and one of the richest investors on the planet (worth $15.5 billion, according to Forbes). “I had no idea he had that streak in him,” Simons marvels. But Whitney wasn’t always into math. In second grade, he couldn’t remember which way math’s greater than/less than symbols were supposed to face, until his teacher told him that the symbol was like the jaws of an alligator hungry for more fish. Whitney went on to study math at Harvard and earn a Ph.D. in mathematical logic from the University of California, Los Angeles, before being recruited for a job as an algorithm specialist at Renaissance, where employees routinely leave as multimillionaires.

The New Jersey native and father of two daughters got hooked on math in his teens, when his parents sent him to the Arnold Ross “math camp” at Ohio State University. The “skimpy kid” broke his collarbone during a soccer game, leading to many days indoors, discovering a new side to a subject he’d always found tedious. “Math was always this well-defined task, which had a specific problem and resulted in a single answer,” Whitney says. “But that’s a myth and it’s tough to get people past this.”

MoMath is part of a larger battle to change how math fits into Americans’ public consciousness. It has outgrown its 19,000 square feet, on 26th Street, and Whitney says the museum needs new premises. “If MoMath’s goal is to go after a bigger group of people and not make you intimidated by it, I think in that respect it is doing its job,” says Bhubaneswar Mishra, a professor at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences who took his daughter to the museum when it first opened. “But to get you addicted” and engaging with math is a different story, Mishra says.

Of the 1.8 million degrees awarded to undergraduates last year, only 1 percent were in mathematics, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Andrew Hacker, author of The Math Myth and professor of political science and math at Queens College, says Whitney and MoMath have a “very uphill challenge in front of them.”

But as any good mathematician knows, for every problem, there is a solution. Here’s one Whitney’s floating: At Solar Noon on June 20th, a mathematical phenomenon will occur, one that might whet all of our appetites for mo’ math. The sun’s rays will reach their highest point on the Summer Solstice; the rays will equal the angles of the pointed stars on a huge hand-made geometric structure that will be placed near the museum.

The structure? It’s called a great ditrigonal dodecicosidodecahedron. Though there is no classical record of the 37-letter-mouthful, Plato theorized in his Platonic Solids that these kinds of shapes were the building blocks of the main elements of life including earth, air, water and fire. No biggie, then. “It’s going to be great,” he says. “But obviously, we’re not going to play up the name,” he adds, Googling the Wikipedia page to find the correct spelling.