Flandrau Exhibition Goes Beyond the Mere Facts in Math
The Flandrau Science Center has partnered with the UA Department of Mathematics to create an exhibition exploring the nature of math, and it's full of interactive puzzles and games.

By Rebecca Peiffer, NASA Space Grant Intern, University Relations - Communications
May 23, 2016

Everyone learns some math in school. When adding fractions, find a common denominator. Under no circumstances shall you divide by zero.

We all know these basic tenets of math and, on the surface, they can seem like random pieces of information that don't meaningfully impact our lives. That's a problem: If you consider math to be merely a collection of rules and facts, then it becomes difficult to imagine what mathematicians do daily.

The University of Arizona Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium's exhibit "Puzzles, Proofs and Patterns" presents a different way of thinking about mathematics. Full of interactive puzzles and games, the exhibit makes it clear that mathematics is not a passive endeavor but an exciting and exploratory learning process.

"My goal with the exhibit was to display what research mathematics is, because so many people don't really know what goes into studying math," said David Glickenstein, director of graduate studies and associate professor in the UA Department of Mathematics. Glickenstein suggested the exhibit and helped to design it.

The exhibit contains close to 20 hands-on math puzzles for people to solve, as well as two computer games that simulate mathematical concepts.

One of these games lets the user play as a ladybug exploring the surface of a dodecahedron. Light moves along the surface of the dodecahedron, which creates some interesting optical illusions. The same cricket can appear twice in the ladybug's field of vision, or completely disappear — all because of the unique way that light travels along this shape.

The exhibit also displays information about different fields of research and the people who have made significant contributions to math. These include ancient Greek founders of the field, such as Euclid and Archimedes, and modern mathematicians, such as John von Neumann, who developed game theory in 1944. This relatively recent contribution helps make sense of decision-making in everything from strategy games to war and economics.

Although it may seem as if there are no questions left in math, many open problems exist that mathematicians have yet to solve, Glickenstein said. One of these open problems, the Poincaré conjecture, which helps to explain dimensionality, was proved in only 2003 by Grigori Perelman. This greatly advanced the field of differential geometry, which is Glickenstein's primary area of research.

"There's still a lot of unanswered questions in math, and we wanted to emphasize that people are still working to solve them today," Glickenstein said.

Bill Plant, Flandrau's director of exhibits, also pushed for people to be an important part of the exhibit.

"There are a lot of interesting stories about the people who have been part of this ever-growing science of mathematics, and I saw this exhibit as an opportunity to highlight them," Plant said. "There's even a story behind the equals sign. Supposedly, the Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde invented it in the 1500s when he got tired of writing 'is equal to' over and over again in mathematical proofs."

The exhibit holds a wealth of information about various branches of mathematics, including trigonometry, calculus and differential geometry. Just from browsing the exhibit, visitors can learn about the different questions each field helps to answer.

"I wanted to let people get a taste for different kinds of math," Glickenstein said. "Even if they don't understand or look at everything we've displayed inside the exhibit, you get the sense that there's this bigger field of mathematics out there."

The exploratory nature of the exhibit makes it ideal for a range of people, regardless of math background.

"We played with the idea of ranking the puzzles by difficulty, but it's been nice to just let people explore on their own," Plant said. "We tried to cast a wide net, with the various puzzles and the deeper concepts explored in the text on the walls. But I was still amazed at the diversity of audiences this exhibit appealed to."

Glickenstein said he hopes the exhibit will help those who did not pursue math or a math-related field to understand how many of the concepts they learned in school are actually quite interconnected and relevant to the world they live in.

"Different math topics, when you first learn them, can seem so distinct and separated. It's only when you get to a certain point that everything comes back together," Glickenstein said.

Calculus, for example, brings together algebra and geometry.

"One goal with this exhibit was to show people who maybe never got to calculus — and might never continue to study math — how it all comes together," Glickenstein said.

Extra info

"Puzzles, Proofs, and Patterns" will be housed in the Flandrau Science Center through October 2017. Although Flandrau's planetarium theater is closed for renovation this summer, the remainder of the science center, including all of the exhibits, remains open.

Summer hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.

For more information, go to www.flandrau.org.

Learn more about Bill Plant by reading "A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Flandrau With Exhibits Director Bill Plant" at UA@Work.