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Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond

By Greg Youmans

Few things are scarier than math. Other subjects, art for instance, may be daunting and inscrutable. But faced with difficult art, we can always defend ourselves with our imperious subjectivity, scoffing at an artwork's failure to affect us as intended, or, better yet, accusing a piece of simply not meaning anything. These are harder positions to take when math confronts us in our ignorance. For many of us, math is meaning. And when faced with the austere beauty of a parabola, reducible to a simple equation composed of numbers and symbols into which the subjectivity and imprecision of language do not even enter! a person can indeed feel small, powerless, and scared.

That's what makes Mathematica at the Exploratorium so refreshing. American husband-and-wife design team Charles and Ray Eames created the exhibition in 1961, apparently with us math-phobic types in mind. The exhibition is interactive, fun, and accessible. At the same time, it manages to be dense, academic, and overwhelming. That Mathematica walks this line so successfully is the key to its power and longevity (the exhibit was on display at the California Science Center for decades before it recently began to travel).

Mathematica immediately entices the kid in all us, pulling us in with neat-o mathematical models (a train traveling a Moebius Strip in the Topology section) and gee-whiz machines (soap bubble dippers demonstrating Minimal Surfaces). But as we gleefully push buttons and play games, we soon find ourselves surrounded by a density of text larger blurbs explain the basic principles behind the models, while smaller paragraphs delve deeper into the theories and their applications. Every concept, initially placed in our palms like a shiny coin, by the end is transformed into a multi-faceted jewel dangling just out of reach above our heads motivating us to further thought and exploration.

And suddenly math, of all things, seems well worth the effort. Clearly the Eameses loved the subject. Their design, both mechanical and graphic, fuses math's simplicity and purity of form with a convivial intellectualism seldom seen today. From elegant kinetic sculptures of the "Hyperboloid of Revolution" to proto-Schoolhouse Rock cartoons of consternated kiddies and bemused professors expounding number theory and urging us to take a "Time Out for Champagne!", Mathematica is bursting at the seams with joy. Specifically, it is the utopian joy of postwar America, guided by the faith that advances in science and technology were the key to improving the human condition.

The Exploratorium has paired the exhibition with the work of four contemporary artists who share the designers' love of math and science. In his "Three Dimensional Zoetrope," Californian artist Stewart Dickson combines the 19th century moving image technology of the zoetrope with cutting-edge, computer-aided 3D design. The result is a sort of 4D movie (three dimensions in space and one in time) in which fascinating shapes rapidly change from one to the next, revealing symmetries until now invisible to mathematicians. The effect is wondrous to behold, and it soon becomes clear where the Eameses' excitement lay: math, in its elegance and perfection, is a natural setting for any artist's quest for beauty in its purest state.

Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond is at the Exploratorium now through May 5, 2002. Exploratorium at the Palace of Fine Arts, 3601 Lyon Street. Gallery hours are Tuesday - Sunday, 10 am - 5 pm (open until 9 pm on Wednesdays). Admission is $9 adults, $7.50 students and seniors. For more information, call 415.561.0360