Devlin's Angle

September 2009

Reaching Out - With Style

How can the mathematics community ensure that fewer children are turned off math and more are attracted to it? The people at the NAVET Science Center in the city of Boras, in Sweden, have one answer that I think has the potential to make a huge difference. The city, about an hour's drive east from the port of Gothenberg, has had for some time a hands-on science museum housed in an old mill. This past year, the museum staff made their way to the second floor, which had hitherto been used only for storage, and turned it into the "Mathematics Palace". I visited the new palace last month to help celebrate its opening.

I expected to see a mathematically-focused version of the wonderful Exploratorium in my home city of San Francisco. And in a way that is perhaps the best way to think of it. But there is a twist. The organizers had brought in an architectural designer to create the space in which the various hands-on exhibits would be displayed.

The result is that as you enter the Palace, you are immediately overwhelmed by the warm, human elegance of your surrounds. The use of hanging cloth and superb, soft, multicolored lighting adds to the welcome. It would be hard to imagine a space less reminiscent of the popular image of mathematics as being "cold and austere." True, that description was coined by a mathematician, Bertrand Russell, but he was talking about an inner beauty of mathematics, seen only by those who put in sufficient effort to penetrate its steely outer walls. To the outsider, "cold and austere" pretty well sums it up in a totally negative, inhuman way. It's not of course. Mathematics is one of humankind's greatest creations. But like anything that has depth, you have to see beneath the surface to appreciate what it is really about. And many children (and adults) see no reason why they should bother to look beyond what they see at first glance.

The genius behind the Boras Mathematics Palace (there is an English translation of the homepage text) is that it envelops the mathematical exhibits in a warm and seductively human environment. The exhibits too, while instantly recognizable as "mathematical artifacts" are also constructed with an artistic eye. Take a look for yourself:

Besides the warmth and sheer elegance of the surroundings, the sensations you get as you walk through the space are of history, humanity, and multiculturalness (is there such a word?) In short, it's what happens when world-famous Scandinavian design meets a hands-on math exhibit.

As a result, not only will the "numbers-averse, arty types" find themselves in comforting, human surroundings, the "who-cares-about-the-design, just-let-me-figure-out-how-this-thing-works" type might just find a growing appreciation of the more artistic side of life. I think the Boras "Palace" serves as a model for how to design such exhibits, that anyone thinking of developing a mathematics museum should experience. Not just read about. Not just look at the photos. Experience. First hand. Because that is what it is all about - a human experience. Check it out for yourself and you'll see why I am so enthusiastic.

For the record, the organizers did not ask me to write about the Palace, they just wanted me to give a talk at the opening celebration. I'm sharing my experience with you because I think it is such a powerful concept that should be copied all around the world. Admittedly, the result may be that this month's column reads like bad advertising copy for a vacation. But in this economy, maybe I need to develop a fallback career. Meanwhile, I still think the Boras Mathematics Palace is one of the coolest (and warmest) places I've been in for a long time.

Devlin's Angle is updated at the beginning of each month. Devlin's most recent book for a general reader is The Unfinished Game: Pascal, Fermat, and the Seventeenth-Century Letter that Made the World Modern, published by Basic Books.
Mathematician Keith Devlin (email: [email protected]) is the Executive Director of the Human-Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute (H-STAR) at Stanford University and The Math Guy on NPR's Weekend Edition.