Making Curriculum Pop

I made a post earlier in the summer about the "Math on the Midway" event in Manhattan. Turns out this is the brain child of Glen Whitney who is now giving math tours of Manhattan and hoping to create a math museum in NYC.

Here's a dispatch below from last weeks New Yorker as well as a link to an older article from Glef:

by Nick Paumgarten

For ten years, Glen Whitney, a mathematician, worked as an algorithm manager at the giant quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, on Long Island. He was the man—or one of many—in the so-called “black box.” During that time, Renaissance did extremely well, as did Whitney, and so when he left the firm, last year, he had the wherewithal to devote himself to his favorite shower-time epiphany—that what the world needs (if not most, then at least a lot) is a museum devoted to math. The equation goes something like this: for the variables Expertise (E), Computational Power (CP), Capital (C), Risk (R), Altruism (A), Obsession (O), Indifference (I),

The idea behind the museum, which doesn’t yet have a home, is that math is ubiquitous, supercool, underappreciated, poorly taught, and even more poorly learned. To drum up interest in his museum, Whitney has been leading free tours of Manhattan neighborhoods, lingering over the math-y bits. On a recent morning, about two dozen civilians (each head count seemed, disconcertingly, to yield a different sum) met up with him on the new cantilevered grandstand outside Alice Tully Hall, at Lincoln Center. Whitney, slim, forty, and dressed for math (bow tie, Dockers, leather walking shoes), made a couple of mild jokes (“People who go on math tours are very prompt”) and then began explaining how the hyperbolic paraboloids of the grandstand employed straight lines to form a curved surface.

Next he jaywalked across Sixty-sixth Street (“This is the most efficient route”) to Lincoln Center Plaza, where, over the screech of a construction crew’s saws, he explained a centrally symmetrical bench (don’t ask), a row of semicircular arches, and what he called “the best spot in the city for perfect one-point perspective”—a view east through the cloistered walkway on the north side of Avery Fisher Hall. A Philip Johnson clock just off Columbus Avenue led to a disquisition on Pythagoras, octaves, calendars, eclipses, and time. Leaning out into the traffic, he said, “Now I am going to switch from the sublime motion of the heavens to the mundane motion of the cars”—and gave a little talk, his voice occasionally cracking, on the timing patterns of the city’s thousands of stoplights. As to the eternal question of whether it’s faster to take Third Avenue or Park Avenue uptown, the former having staggered lights, the latter not, he equivocated: “It depends on your nature. If you want speed right now, you take Park. If you like to understand a system and maximize it, you take Third. I’m a system guy.”

A man, perhaps a cabbie in math-tour disguise, said, “I like Park Avenue. It has a tunnel.”
As the tour moved down Broadway, Whitney calculated the advantage of taking the hypotenuse while travelling through a grid (you gain two blocks for every nine). He stopped at a fire hydrant, produced a wrench, and explained the rationale behind pentagonal lug nuts (they are wrench-proof) and reverse-threaded screws (they are righty-tighty-lefty-loosey-proof). As the group moved to Whole Foods for a discussion of queueing theory, Sylvain Cappell, a math professor at N.Y.U., and a member of the math museum’s advisory council, indulged a mathophobe with back-of-the-classroom mutterings about the ham-sandwich theorem (any two slices of bread and chunk of ham can be bisected on a single plane), the optimization of prepared foods, and the curiously frequent incidence, at least in the nineteen-eighties, of high-school calculus teachers who were also football coaches. The tour ended in Columbus Circle—within sight of the unisphere, at the foot of Trump Tower—with a discussion of Eratosthenes, Christopher Columbus, and the measurement of the earth. No question, math was cool.

In Whitney’s view, the standard progression in math education—algebra, geometry, trig, pre-calculus, calculus—is random and baseless, a linear conceit that creates a false sense of increasing difficulty. Mathematical ignorance is insidious, and it manifests itself in many ways. “The purest example is the lottery,” he said. “The lottery is a tax on the mathematically illiterate.”

Another example, impure in the extreme, is the national debt. On his way to the train station, Whitney stopped off at the National Debt Clock, on Forty-fourth Street, which tracks the deficit in real time. At that second, the clock read $11,518,960,404,062, and a second later the number was tens of thousands of dollars higher. The family share of it held steady, at $96,700. “People just don’t seem to care,” he said. “Why? Because it’s impossible to understand it.” He has tried the analogical approach favored by astronomers. “If Jupiter is the size of a basketball, then Earth is a pea. O.K., so let’s suppose the national debt is a basketball. Your annual salary would be unseen by the most powerful microscope in the world.”

When he was at Renaissance, he said, the firm processed more than a terabyte of data every day. That’s a lot. The trick, he said, was to “find the nuggets . . . the very faint phenomena amidst the cacophony of static.” That’s where the math came in.

Related article from GELF here

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