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You Do the Math!

Giugno 2013
L’avete sempre odiata fin dai tempi della scuola, oppure vi affascina e vorreste capirne di più? In entrambi i casi il museo della matematica recentemente aperto a New York è per voi. Pensato essenzialmente per aiutare i bambini ad affrontare i numeri in modo costruttivo, il MoMath è un luogo decisamente colorato e divertente.

di Lorenza Cerbini

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“The Harmony of Spheres” is one of the exhibits at “MoMath” in New York
“The Harmony of Spheres” is one of the exhibits at “MoMath” in New York
Glen Whitney
Glen Whitney

Math is a topic for everybody,” says Glen Whitney, founder and co-executive director of “MoMath” (the National Museum of Mathematics). The Museum opened in New York last December, with the goal of exploring a field that many Americans consider difficult and boring, even if Whitney is not one of them: “The essence of math is to discover new things and to experiment new ideas,” he says.
“MoMath” is for children aged 4 to 8, but it’s also for the “inner child” in everyone. Here teenagers, adults and seniors can have fun. The Museum is interactive and it encourages visitors to experiment their own ideas and to test their capabilities. There are also rooms that companies can rent for seminars.


Success in mathematics, like success in chess, is often associated with people who have “genius” levels of intelligence, but sometimes they also have psychological problems. There have even been movies on the subject. Examples include Good Will Hunting (1997), in which the lead character (Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon) is a young working-class man from Boston who has great mathematical ability, but also behavioural issues. After assaulting a police officer, he becomes a patient of a therapist, Sean Maguire, played by Robin Williams. Next came A Beautiful Mind (2001), in which Russell Crowe played the schizophrenic mathematician, John Nash.


In real life math (or “maths” in British English) creates anxiety for schoolchildren at an early age. There is even a phenomenon called “Math Phobia,” which was first recognised in the 1970s.
Mathematics appears to divide people into two categories: those who understand it, and those who don’t. Today there are even books aimed at people in the second group. One of these is The Math Instinct: Why You’re a Mathematical Genius (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and Dogs), whose author, Keith Devlin, believes “There are two kinds of math: the hard kind and the easy kind. The easy kind, practiced by, shrimp, Welsh Corgis — and us — is innate.” Devlin tries to encourage readers to overcome their fear of the “hard kind” of math.


Humans use math every day and, to be effective, it isn’t necessary to be a genius: patience and maturity are equally important. But if you love math, then join the Mathematical Association of America (http://www.maa.org/). It was founded in 1894 and today it has over 20,000 members. 




Speaker: Chuck Rolando (Standard American accent)

Tourists and residents in New York like to go to MoMA, the Museum of Modern Art, but now they can also go to “MoMath,” the National Museum of Mathematics. This opened last year and it has already received three times the number of visitors originally expected. As co-founder Glen Whitney explains, it is designed to show children of all ages that math can be useful – and fun:

Glen Whitney (Standard American accent)

It’s a way of thinking that lets you be a good problem solver, and it’s not necessarily math problems even that you’ll solve, but the discipline and thinking in a systematic way makes people into good problem solvers, and that‘s a skill that transfers to almost any area where people work, and that’s one of the reasons why Math majors find many, many career opportunities, because employers know that they have those problem-solving skills. So it’s great way of thinking and it leads to fun, surprising results.


One of the Museum’s exhibits is dedicated to a mathematical question first asked by Galileo:

Glen Whitney

Galileo in the early 1600s asked a very simple question: “If I build a track” – think of a train track – “starting from a certain point” – we’ll call it Point A – and ending up at a certain lower point, but somewhere farther away – Point B – “What shape should that track be? So that a train car running completely under... just under gravity –  right, it’s going to be taken by gravity  down from Point A to Point B – what shape should the track be, so the train car gets to Point B the fastest, in the shortest possible amount of time?” So he asked this question, and that’s one of the great things about math is it encourages asking questions, but it turned out he couldn’t answer it, not enough mathematical ideas had yet been developed to solve what seems like a very simple question. And it became a famous what’s called “open problem,” unsolved problem, which lasted for 70 years, until Jacob and Johann Bernoulli solved it in the late 1600s.  


But that isn’t the most popular exhibit:

Glen Whitney

Well, the most popular exhibit is the square wheel tricycle. Everybody just loves to see that mathematics makes what seems to be impossible actually work, that there could be a tricycle, it’s an ordinary tricycle, it’s got square wheels, but because we’ve calculated just the right shape for the track, it rolls as smoothly on that special track as an ordinary tricycle with round wheels would roll on a flat surface.

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Math. La parola mathematics ha due abbreviazioni diverse: gli americani dicono math, i britannici maths. Gli americani hanno anche un’espressione che, se vedete i film in lingua originale, avrete sicuramente sentito: You do the math, che significa letteralmente “fai i calcoli” ma che in realtà vuol dire, “pensaci, vedi un po’ tu” ecc.

Math major. Uno studente di matematica (all’università). Nelle università americane gli studenti seguono un corso con varie materie con l’idea di ottenere una formazione più generica. The major è la materia principale, mentre the minors sono quelle minori, di solito di una disciplina diversa rispetto a quella principale. Nell’UK gli studi all’università sono più specializzati quindi un maths student tende a studiare la matematica e basta.

It rolls just as smoothly as an ordinary tricycle would...
Rotola scorrevolmente come farebbe un triciclo normale su una superficie piatta. Il concetto poco pratico del triciclo con delle ruote quadrate ci offre un esempio molto pratico del condizionale: Glen Whitney ha già usato il verbo to roll e quindi dice solo it would, per non ripetersi. Qui as it would è un modo più semplice per dire as it would roll.