Is a Museum of Mathematics necessary?

Dear readers,

Today, 12/12/12, is an important date for mathematics in the USA. Not just because it is a date which has three identical components (something that we won’t see again for another 88-odd years), and not even because it’s one of the 12 dates every year that are abbreviated the same way in the USA and the rest of the world (where, as you likely know, they are written with the days before the month). It is also significant because it marks the opening ceremony of the Museum of Mathematics in New York City.

If you read the New York Times, you may recognize the title of this post as a play on an article that appeared there this past summer, entitled Is Algebra Necessary? This misguided and naïve article was among the motivating factors for this blog, as it made me realize how undervalued and misunderstood mathematics education is even among the educated. Several good rebuttals to this article failed to get a larger conversation started, and it is this larger conversation that I want to contribute to with this blog.

Mathematics education is a topic I plan to address from many different angles next year, but for today, I will simply discuss whether a Museum of Mathematics is a step in the right direction. Glen Whitney, the museum’s director, told the New York Times that its mission is to shape cultural attitudes and dispel the bad rap that most people give math – which happens to be one of my blog’s objectives as well, so I could not agree more with his motivation. The big question is whether a museum can achieve this goal.

My main concern is that an appreciation for mathematics is unlikely to come from visiting exhibits in a museum – rather, I believe it can only appear from positive exposure to mathematics in everyday life. If a child dislikes the subject in school, they may expect going to a math museum to be boring. Just as with art, music or a language, a taste for mathematics is an acquired one. It usually requires a certain level of maturity and discipline, which children are unlikely to acquire without outside encouragement.

For this reason, parental influence, as well as that of peers, is critical. An environment that views math in a positive light will have its effect with or without the museum, while a hostile environment may not prepare a child for being receptive towards the museum’s exhibits. Without innovative changes in the mathematics curriculum, a more favorable attitude towards the subject, and a deeper understanding of the role of mathematics in our culture, the impact of the Museum of Mathematics may remain limited.

Despite my skepticism I remain open-minded. On my upcoming trip to New York City I will make sure to stop by the museum and see how deeply its exhibits engage me. I will report on my experience in an upcoming blog post, so stay tuned. Perhaps abstract concepts really can be made fascinating – and concrete – in a museum setting. I am just not sure that the museum can make enough of a difference.

There is, however, at least one thing that I’m pretty sure about. Dr. Whitney spent a decade working at an investment firm, and, in his own words, decided to engage in an activity with “more direct socially redeeming value”. While the social impact of his current undertaking may be limited, it will at least be significantly more positive than that of his previous job. And that, in itself, is definitely a good thing!

Of baseball and earthquakes: an interview with Richard Hoshino

Dear readers,

I’m delighted to kick off my interview series with a very special person, Richard Hoshino. I first met Richard at the Math training camp organized by the Canadian Mathematical Society in the winter of 2001, where he conducted some really engaging sessions on a topic I wasn’t very good at: inequalities. I left the camp with much more confidence in my math problem-solving skills than I had arrived with.

In 2005 I attended Richard’s keynote presentation at the annual Canadian Undergraduate Mathematics Conference (CUMC) in Kingston. This presentation inspired all of us to strive for a healthy balance between research, teaching, and volunteer work in our careers, rather than adopting the “publish or perish” mentality so prevalent in academic circles. I was greatly inspired by Richard’s presentation.

When McGill University was voted to host the following year’s conference and I headed the organizing committee, it was an easy decision to invite Richard back as a keynote speaker, and his presentation (the slides alone don’t do justice to Richard’s oratory skills), touching on his work at the Canada Border Services Agency, showed us a great example of combining mathematics research with public service.

Even after Richard left Canada to live in Japan with his spouse, we stayed in touch and he continued to inspire me, especially when he put his mathematical skills to use to help earthquake relief efforts. He is currently writing a book to inspire young mathematicians and working on a postdoctoral fellowship in Tokyo that just got featured in Japan’s leading English-language newspaper!

You can download our conversation (I still need to figure out how to make it possible to stream it directly). Hope you enjoy this interview!

To find out more about Richard’s work you can visit his homepage.
You can also check out his advisor’s book that he mentioned in the interview.
This is Richard’s research article with an application to music.
Also check out Quest University where Richard is about to start teaching.
Finally, his most recent article on scheduling a game show is on pages 14-15.