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Mathematica: a world of numbers and beyond, indeed

16 Feb 2010

The legendary Charles and Ray Eames may perhaps be best known for their design of a certain lounge chair, but let’s not forget their architecture, print design, photography, film, textiles—and exhibits. Between 1943 and 1988 they designed fourteen exhibits, of which only Mathematica: A World of Numbers…and Beyond (1961) still exists. Three versions were created and two of them remain open to the public: one at the New York Hall of Science and the other at Boston’s Museum of Science.

Probability, Topology, Boolean Algebra, Geometry, Calculus, and Logic…I don’t feel particularly moved by any of those, but inarguably this exhibition, with all its quirks and charms, makes math accessible and interesting. I’ve been to it a number of times, and it’s usually packed with people happily learning about mathematics and playing with the interactive exhibits.

The photos above are of my favorite part of the exhibit: the case about projective geometry. I like the colors of the geometric shapes, the way that the pieces are held in position by Inspector Gadget-like hinged poles, and the grid on the bottom of the case. The graphics perched on black blocks are simple and handsome. The photo below is of another element in the exhibit that I like: math-related quotation panels overhead, playing nice with the track lighting frame.

Mathematica is successful as an exhibit about math, but more importantly, from an exhibit-design standpoint it’s an incomparable artifact, a fascinating time capsule of an exhibit designed during the 1960s. And one designed by the Eames, no less.

I’m a sucker for retro graphic design, but I do have to say that I don’t like the graphics’ illustrations. They’re cute and fun, I suppose, but they annoy me…I…hate them.

There, I said it.

I also don’t like that some parts of the exhibit look as though they were pasted together for a high school statistics class presentation. Picture below, on the right: yeah, I’m talking to you. This encased collage is deadly boring (sorry, Sir Francis Galton), and it’s an area always skipped in favor of the fun hands-on interactives, which are fantastic.

The other part of the exhibit that doesn’t do it for me is the math history wall. I’ve heard it described as wallpaper, or an art piece. The black and white bars do create a graphically interesting pattern, but then the wall is cluttered up with other bits of browning paper and artwork. The capitalized, justified serif font used is extremely difficult to read, if you were inclined to try. It makes me dizzy. And yet the darnedest thing: people do sometimes read it. (I have no idea….) Another issue with this wall is that the timeline ends in 1961, and Boston’s solution, a poster, is not well integrated. I believe that the NY Hall of Science’s solution, an interactive monitor, is a better one, at least in theory (I haven’t been to Mathematica NY to see it firsthand).

I do like the probability machine. The full text reads: THE T/HEORY/OF PR/OBABI/LITIES/IS NO/THING/MORE/THAN/GOOD/SENSE/CONFI/RMED/BY CA/LCULATION. :LA/PLACE/1796 Balls fall from above and form a bell curve. Simple, elegant—and if the text is a little wonky, it does force you to read it over a few times to understand it, maybe making you internalize its message.

I feel like quite the curmudgeon with my criticisms of Mathematica. The exhibit is nearly fifty years old, after all—it’s miraculous that it still exists. And despite its literal dustiness, it’s an exhibit beloved and cherished by many, a vintage exhibit that allows us to step back in time to experience firsthand a 60s era exhibit full of the Eames’s joie de vivre, fun, and humor. I think any designer would agree that that in itself is pretty cool.
If you’ve been, what do you think?


6 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 Feb 2010 4:31 am

    Charles Eames supposedly had very weird ideas about typography (being an architect and industrial designer and all). I can’t remember his exact rationale, but he actually believed all uppercase typography to be superior to upper/lower—hence the often illegibility of some texts.

    One of the things I have always appreciated about the Eamesian approach to exhibit design (most of their design actually) was the avoidance of watering down topics and allowing complexity to be a noble trait rather than a thing to remove. Mathematica is such a great artifact of exhibit design because it generally accepts the complexity of some ideas while do its best to present things in a logical and explanatory manner.

  2. 28 Feb 2010 8:26 am

    Derrick, thanks for sharing that bit of trivia about Charles Eames and uppercase typography. Fascinating. Designers sometimes get the craziest notions in their heads…

    And, excellent words to describe Mathematica: accepting of complexity, logical, and explanatory. I agree.

  3. Derrin permalink
    02 Dec 2010 5:43 pm

    I’ve never been to Mathematica, but I recently stumbled across a small game designed by Charles Eames: the House of Cards. It is a set of cards with little slits along the edges so that they can interlock in different ways. They each have a cute picture of “Familiar and nostalgic objects from the animal, mineral, and vegetable kingdoms.” I think it’s fascinating how Eames was able to appeal to the visual, the tactile, and the experimental all at once. He let his audience manipulate, customize, and create their own experiences and understood that people perceive his work through multiple senses. The House of Cards feels like a tiny scaled-down version of the exhibit, and after reading more about it, I can’t wait to go! Thanks : )

  4. Bill V permalink
    03 Apr 2012 8:59 pm

    Mathematica, at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, helped cement my own fascination with mathematics as a child in the 60’s. Thanks for the reminder of what it looked like. Great comment re: complexity too. Missing altogether in many museum exhibits.

  5. Robin K. Johnson permalink
    17 Mar 2014 2:02 pm

    We had the third Mathematica at SciTrek, the Science and Technology Museum of Atlanta from 1988 until the museum closed due to lack of funding in the early 2000’s. I wonder what happened to it?

  6. Bill Gross permalink
    11 May 2019 5:37 pm

    This was one of my favorite exhibits of all time, and it had a huge impact on me falling in love with math and science. I first saw it when I was 12 years old in Los Angeles, and then went back MANY times. Looking back, I think it was one of the biggest inspirations I ever had, and I am SO grateful I was lucky enough to grow up only 13 miles away from this incredible experience that I absorbed MANY times in my teens.

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