Mathematics gets a home to do it proud
Zaha Hadid’s compelling design work for the Science Museum’s new Mathematics Gallery makes the subject happily palatable
We Brits pride ourselves on being clueless at maths. It’s partly an aspect of a double-bluffing national tic in which learning is supposed to be worn lightly: if you’ve got a doublefirst in, say, calculus and advanced logic, it’s considered only decent to claim that you can barely add up. But it’s an attitude that masks the fact that far too many of us, adults probably more than children, really are clueless at maths.
However, we’re now in the midst of a government drive for universal competence in mathematics. Maths is the cornerstone of the STEM curriculum, and beyond that there’s the sense that we should all be continually developing our numerical literacy through “lifelong learning”, populist books and TV programmes and a general attitude that maths should be “fun”. In a digital age when applied maths has an ever-increasing impact on all our lives, struggling through GCSE and immediately forgetting everything you learnt (still less being proud of that) is a luxury none of us can afford.
Designed by the late Baghdadborn visionary architect Zaha Hadid, the Science Museum’s new Mathematics Gallery couldn’t, then, be opening at a more appropriate moment. But what do its design and, even more importantly, its contents, contribute to Britain’s new mathematically oriented educational landscape? What’s in it for the not-that-committed GCSE student and — just as significantly — the mathematically curious, but by-nomeans expert adult?
The first thing you see on entering is a vintage biplane, suspended from the ceiling, as though zooming straight at you. The Handley Page 1929 “safe” aircraft, which employed Mathematics:TheWintonGallery, state-of-the-art mathematical research in the creation of a safer wing design, is surrounded by enormous curving shapes in moulded aluminium and tensile PVC fabric, representing the air currents moving around the plane. From this dramatic centrepiece, the rest of the room radiates in aerodynamic forms, inspired by “equations describing airflow”, that curve around the ceilings, unfurling in patterns across the floors, in which there’s barely a straight line.
Mathematicians generally are fond of saying their discipline can be as fluid, expressive and creative as any of the so-called arts, and you could hardly hope for a more exhilarating exposition of that notion than this. The actual exhibits, meanwhile, rather cower beneath this overhead onslaught, in cuboid cases that look slightly old-fashioned beside Hadid’s dancing arabesques.
The 600 exhibits in the old Mathematics Gallery, formerly packed into large cases with explanations aimed at the specialist rather than the novice, have been slimmed down to a more manageable 120. From 17 thcentury astrolabes and Victorian 3D slide-rules to fabulously primitivelooking Seventies computers, they are grouped in “stories” that demonstrate the relevance of maths to every aspect of existence: life and death, war and peace, beauty, trade, sport and so on.
Beauty, for example, is represented by objects as diverse as an arm- chair by modernist designer Charlotte Perriand and a wonderful old wooden doorway, salvaged from a house in London’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Both are inspired by the “influential rules of proportion” formulated by the Ancient Greek architect Vitruvius, although we aren’t told what these rules were.
At this point, even a resolute nonmaths specialist such as myself is craving a little more actual maths. But the workings of a Dog Race Tote Machine from 1935, in the Gambling section, soon have my head spinning. Designed to “calculate the odds for each day in real time as gamblers placed their bets”, and comprising seven meters dangling on chains from an 8ft-high triangu- lar frame, it leaves you unsure whether you should be focusing on its numerical intricacies, its insights into the social history of gambling or marvelling on its sheer weirdness as an object.
Whichever way you dress it up, this being a museum, this is first and foremost a collection of objects that need explanation. Just looking at a computer won’t tell most of anything at all about what it’s for or how it works, and people’s levels of mathematical expertise all being subtly, or often radically different, pitching these explanations at a universally appropriate level is a near impossible task.
In the section on encryption, related to the Enigma machine, used by the German military, whose fiendish codes were famously broken by the Bletchley Park scientists, an interactive display, apparently aimed at teenage girls, asks us to look at how Charlotte and Jasmine use private and public forms of encryption to invite friends to their party. The first part, on symmetric encryption, seems patronisingly over-simple. The second part, on asymmetric encryption, seems scarily tricky. This felt pitched about right: daunting, but doable.
What the gallery offers, perhaps most of all, is an amazing array of objects. Everywhere, you feel the pathos of obsolete technology. An IBM hole-in-the-wall cash machine from 1987, a room-filling Elliott 401 computer from 1954, with banks of criss-crossing wires that make a Jackson Pollock painting look straightforward.
The curators estimate that to make a fair fist of “doing” this gallery will take from an hour to an hour and a half. That will be time well spent. The multi-disciplinary approach means that your mind drifts continually away from the purely mathematical in exactly the way you’re told not to let it do in oldschool maths lessons.
But the message of this gallery is that maths can be accessed as much via the imagination as though the purely rational faculties. It should be the responsibility of a display such as this not to plug gaps in the school education system, but to give us all a wider and richer context for approaching one of life’s essential skills. It certainly does that.
People walk through a new gallery, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. inside the Science Museum during a press view in London on Dec 7. The Gallery was