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

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CULTURE - By MARK HUD­SON NIKLAS HALLE’N

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

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