Mathematica: A world of numbers … and beyond

My favorite exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Science is called Mathematica: A world of numbers … and beyond. It had been closed for awhile as it was moved to a back corner, only reachable by walking through the Theater of Electricity (which contains the world’s largest air-insulated Van de Graff generator). I’m a little disappointed by this simply because it seems unlikely to get the same amount of traffic that it used to get when it was on the main level where everyone walked past it.

The exhibit was designed by the Charles and Ray Eames, who are famous for, among other things, the short film Powers of Ten and the Eames Lounge Chair. Mathematica originally opened at the California Museum of Science and Industry (now the California Science Center) in March of 1961 after IBM was asked to contribute something to the then-relatively new museum. It finally closed in 1998 (the same year the museum changed its name).

In November of 1961 an exact duplicate was made and placed in Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. This duplicate version was moved to Boston in 1980. A second duplicate had several homes over the years including at IBM’s headquarters, but now resides with the Eames family who apparently will display portions of it at their office from time-to-time.

It is my sincere hope that this fantastic exhibit never goes away. It manages to convey complex mathematics in ways to which people can relate. It also demonstrates the beauty and whimsy of mathematics in a way that could only have been captured by someone with a background in design.

My son has always been a big fan of the Eames’ and I’m beginning to appreciate their aesthetic. Certainly this exhibit is a triumph of their ability to work across disciplines. I just hope that it sticks around for another thirty years.

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