Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


April 9, 2009

Building a Temple to Math

Glen Whitney is on a quest to give the field of mathematics the museum it deserves.

David Goldenberg

Glen Whitney has a dream. It's a geeky dream, sure, but it's also a democratic one. He wants to bring math back to the people by creating a world-class interactive math museum, the only one of its kind in the country. For the last few years, Whitney has devoted himself to the cause, pushing aside a lucrative career as a hedge-fund algorithm manager to bring the vision of the Math Factory to life.

He's still got a ways to go on his quest—his team still needs a museum site, for example—but his enthusiasm is endless, and he thinks that he has a real chance to convince people that math is not just a hard subject that gets harder the more you look into it. "It's not that non-mathematicians need to be able to understand and enjoy more complicated forms of math," he says. "It's that they need to understand that there are more forms of math than they ever dreamed of, that the world of math is open for exploration by anybody, and that math is something to enjoy and take delight in."

Glen Whitney
"As the world technologizes, the settings in which mathematical skills are important to function and thrive in society become ever more common."

Glen Whitney

The following interview was conducted over email and has been edited for length and clarity. (You can hear Whitney speak, along with noted mathematical authors John Derbyshire and Paul Hoffman, at the debut of Gelf Magazine's Geeking Out reading series on April 15th at the Jan Larsen Art Studios in Brooklyn, New York. There will also be an interactive math demonstration!)

Gelf Magazine: How did the idea for the math museum come about?

Glen Whitney: There used to be a tiny museum of mathematics, located in two former classrooms in a community center in Herricks, NY. That museum, the Goudreau Museum (named after a gifted math educator), was so small that it was only open by appointment, but a friend of mine went to the trouble of getting a group together and said I should come along.
Despite being obviously run on a shoestring, everything having that patina of long use, my kids and I had a great time. I remember thinking, "What a great country this is—there can be a museum on every topic under the sun." So a year ago I asked an acquaintance in the math-education world how the museum was doing, and was dismayed to hear that it had folded a couple years before that. That percolated in my mind, and looking around a bit I found that America no longer had any museum of mathematics. As I thought about what a vital role a highly visible math museum should and could play in our society, I became convinced that the opportunity to create a world-class math museum here was too good to pass up.

Gelf Magazine: Is there another museum you're basing it on or you would like it to be like?

Glen Whitney: Well, philosophically we're the descendant of the Goudreau museum. But we want the museum to have the hands-on, engaging feel of one of the great interactive science centers—the Exploratorium in San Francisco, or the Ontario Science Centre, or the Palace of Discovery in Paris, to name a few.

Gelf Magazine: What sort of people would want to go to a museum about math?

Glen Whitney: Frankly, anyone looking for a bunch of fun, exciting activities that will spark imagination and curiosity. Mathematics ties in to so many different aspects of life that you won't need to be a math whiz or a math lover to enjoy our museum. We'll highlight the connections between math and a huge range of topics: art, biology, music, finance, sports, games, physics, juggling, photography, design, and so on. We have a slogan at the Math Factory that math is our MUSE—because Math Underlies Simply Everything. So if you like any of those topics, and if you like to play with interesting stuff that holds surprises in store, you'll want to come to our museum.

Gelf Magazine: Are you worried that laypeople are being pushed away from math in general? Do they need to be able to understand and enjoy more complicated forms of math?

Glen Whitney: Absolutely. That's what motivates me more than any other single thing—the limited view that many people hold of mathematics. I think if you ask someone, "That person is a mathematician. What do you think she does?" the answer is likely to be something along the lines of, "I don't know. I guess she solves really hard equations." That person may be visualizing huge columns of numbers that maybe don't quite add up. But the fact is that the mathematician may be studying how the shape of a drum affects the pitches that it makes when you beat on it, or how to link up the internet to get your email where it's going the fastest, or creating beautiful images of fractals, or how the way you shuffle cards affects the probabilities in your next hand of poker. So it's not that non-mathematicians need to be able to understand and enjoy more complicated forms of math—it's that they need to understand that there are more forms of math than they ever dreamed of, that the world of math is open for exploration by anybody, and that math is something to enjoy and take delight in.

Gelf Magazine: Should general high-school math education be changed? Does it make sense to go from algebra to trigonometry to pre-calculus, etc?

"I feel that the illusion of linearity is one of the biggest problems in the current public perception of mathematics."
Glen Whitney: There's no doubt that the linear progression of public-school math education creates the illusion that mathematics is like one long ladder, reaching up into the clouds, that the next step is always obvious, and that it's just a matter of how high you can climb before you fall off. And it is an illusion—math is more like a tangled bush, with branches forking off everywhere from the ground up, often rejoining each other as they grow. And people create new branches all the time, going off in unexpected directions from things that seemed to be polished off before. So I feel that the illusion of linearity is one of the biggest problems in the current public perception of mathematics. But it's not clear what can be done in the high-school setting. There's only so much time, and the curriculum that's there generally includes the topics most useful, the methods that ideally everyone should know. I know that if I were to single out any one thing in the canon, and wonder aloud, "Does everyone really need to know trigonometry?" in order to make room for an exploratory survey of the breadth of modern mathematics, hundreds of math educators around the country would gasp in horror, and for good and valid reasons. That's where an institution like the Math Factory comes in—we're not under the pressure of a mandated linear curriculum with barely enough time to squeeze it all in, so we can present a huge variety of topics in very engaging ways.

Gelf Magazine: How do you plan to engage laypeople with math but at the same time keep true to the complexity of the ideas you're bringing to them?

Glen Whitney: Excellent question—but in the end, there's a simple solution. Picture math as a series of streams leading off into a wilderness. Some of those streams lead only a short way, have no tributaries, and maybe just disappear into a marsh. Others lead on to mighty systems of rivers that connect to far-off, deep waters. Virtually every deep, complex area of mathematics begins with a simple idea or observation. So at the math museum, we'll gravitate toward activities and ideas that are at the beginnings of those productive streams that can lead people whose imaginations are caught on to the often exquisitely beautiful complexities that lie beyond. What's more, we'll try to provide a second layer of information and activities for our visitors who do become engaged with a particular topic—to point the way downstream for them, while other visitors can simply enjoy the calmer waters at the beginning. Let me make this concrete. In our permanent museum, we plan to have an exhibit about how compact a space you can fit a collection of shapes into. Everyone can enjoy the puzzle of rearranging the pieces, trying to pack them into the smallest possible square. But that same basic idea, of most efficient packings, has led to some of the deepest problems in mathematics, when you extend it to different shapes, different dimensions, or different geometries.

Gelf Magazine: What's the current timeline looking like for the museum?

Glen Whitney: Well, right now we're in the midst of creating our first physical exhibition, which will premiere at this year's World Science Festival, which is held in Manhattan in mid-June. So that gives a definite date when you'll start to be able to see concrete results of our efforts, and that exhibition will travel to museums and science centers around the country. But as far as a fixed museum that visitors can show up to any time they like, we're currently in the siting process, which is an open-ended activity. All I can really say is that once we find a location, it will be 2-3 years from then until Opening Day; but I don't know when we'll find a location. Know anybody giving a warehouse in a decent area away?

Gelf Magazine: Is technology making people better or worse at math?

Glen Whitney: Technology may be fostering the notion that math is less and less relevant, and if math were just calculation, that might even be true. But calculation in many ways is to mathematics what spelling is to creative writing: generally no more than a means to an end. It's problem-solving, creativity within a well-defined structure, and the ability to proceed systematically and logically that are likely the most important mathematical skills that everyone should have. There are two ironies here, though. The first is that it turns out that learning how to do calculations longhand, and understand why the methods work, and perfect the ability to do them, really is a good way to embark on learning the important skills of mathematics. So to the extent that the easy availability of a calculator reduces kids' patience to learn those things, technology has the potential to make people worse at math. The second irony is that as the world technologizes, the settings in which mathematical skills are important to function and thrive in society become ever more common. Therefore, one of the things I'd like the math museum ultimately to explore is how to get young kids started on the road of learning the essentially valuable math skills, in a world where 2/3 plus 4/5 is only eight keystrokes away.

Gelf Magazine: You mentioned that you worked for a math-based hedge fund. Did it do well? Did these hedge funds outperform their non-algorithm-based competitors in the crash?

Glen Whitney: At the fund where I worked, we were fortunate that we continued to perform well through recent market conditions. The methods that we and many other funds use are based in part on historic market behavior, so if market dynamics change enough, those methods won't necessarily continue to work. Plus, there's an element of average behavior in the models, so that they will tend to be successful on average over a stretch of time, and may have their daily ups and downs like any other investment. So in any brief, intense market episode—like the decline in the market in early October 2008—it's impossible to say which way any individual strategy will go. As many money managers have found out over the years, one sufficiently bad day can wipe you out, even if the next day would have led to enormous profits, had you only been able to hold on. So as to your larger question, there's no simple answer to whether algorithmic funds outperformed non-algorithmic funds in the crash—but I will say that developing mathematical methods that have strong evidence of their soundness supports the discipline that a fund should stay its course through tough times and good, and there is evidence that human decisions to alter trades or strategy in times of crisis tend not to be good decisions.

Gelf Magazine: Who do you think is more correct about the future of human cognition: Ray Kurzweil, who envisions the Singularity, or Mike Judge, who envisions Idiocracy?

Glen Whitney: Hey, not to nitpick, but the Singularity is rather explicitly a prediction about non-human cognition. So the two are not mutually exclusive, and the combination of both is a prospect fearful to contemplate—but I'm an optimist. I think you have to be to do something crazy like start a new museum in the worst economy in decades. So I believe that our world will continue to benefit from towering achievements of human intellect for as long a time as you'd care to name.
[Editor's note: you can read fellow Geeking Out guest speaker John Derbyshire's answer to a similar question in Gelf's interview with him.]

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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- Science
- posted on Jun 08, 09

I see even more layers of abstraction put upon problem with some monument that most won't see; teaching is one on one; "how" is craftsman showing apprentice; Richard P. Feyman; let's start with those that want to learn; why waste resources?

- Science
- posted on Jul 30, 09
Bunnie Tent

Hi David!

Your article is wonderful, and I'm so glad you are working in math. My 3rd book "Leonhard Euler and the Bernoullis" will be out this fall with AKPeters, and my first book on Gauss is now in its 3rd printing.

Jared Taylor (graduated Altamont 8(?) years ago) sent me a fascinating article about the stupid way we teach math. If you'll send me your email address, I'll send you the article. It likens the way we teach math to teaching art by having kids do a paint-by-numbers project.

I will be in New York Aug 31-Sep 2 and would love to take Glen Whitney's math tour of Manhattan. Do you know if that's possible. Are you located in New YOrk now? Virginia is marrying her partner on Aug 29 in Brooklyn, and I will have a few days to kill before John's marriage to Anne Gray in Vermont the following weekend.

With fond regards, Bunnie Tent

- Science
- posted on Apr 07, 10
Jenny and Steeve

I'm trying to find out if we could take Glen Whitney's math tour. We'll be in NYC this Friday April 9-Wed. April 14 and would love to check it out!

Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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