“Everyone knows that square wheels don’t roll,” says Glen Whitney, founder of the Museum of Mathematics in New York. That is, until they step inside his lair. Two square-wheeled tricycles roll smoothly around an undulating track, engineered with numbers to defeat narrow thinking.
Everyone also knows that math is boring, is too hard, is just bad news—right? That’s how Whitney felt about it as a student, until he wound up going to math camp one summer (“I would have gone to broccoli camp” just to get out of the house, he recalls). The puzzles, patterns, and conundrums he decoded in those woodsy cabins while laid up with a soccer injury challenged him to explore a whole new layer of reality—hidden, but also in plain sight. He built the museum, he quips, “so that other kids wouldn’t have to break their collarbones” to find this out.
After he became a math professor and then an investment researcher at Renaissance Technologies, Whitney took his kids to a little museum on Long Island founded by high-school math teacher Bernard Goudreau. “This is a great country,” he marveled. “We can have a museum about anything, even mathematics!”
A few years later Whitney heard to his dismay that the Goudreau—the sole math museum in North America—had shuttered. So he quit his job and raised $22 million to build another one, with seed funding from Renaissance founder James Simons.
On the day of Philanthropy’s visit, the Museum of Mathematics (known as MoMath) was teeming with schoolkids on a field trip. They solved mazes, played chords on a harmonic web, used the magic power of multiplication to activate a two-story 3D paraboloid, and turned into dancing trees on a screen with a fractal-based video feed. Teachers report that weeks after a visit, students are often still jazzed about what they learn at MoMath and how it connects to classwork and real life.
MoMath’s newest initiative, just opened in December 2014 after a successful million-dollar fundraising campaign, is an exhibit called Robot Swarm. Dozens of glowing motorized vehicles scoot around, crab-like, under a glass floor where visitors stroll, reacting to the humans and to each other according to easy visitor commands such as “follow me” or “avoid all other robots.” The underlying algorithms demonstrate natural processes like flocking behavior or crystal formation. And they greatly excite barefooted teenagers.
When MoMath was just getting set up, Whitney paid $350 for a phone number that with the addition of just two symbols would be a valid math equation. It seemed like a ridiculous expense at the time, with funding so uncertain, yet too charming to pass up. And in the end it paid off. At the conclusion of a seemingly dead-end meeting with some Google representatives, Whitney provided the phone number and challenged them to explain it—exactly the sort of puzzle that Google is famous for posing to its job applicants.
Furious scribbling and head-scratching ensued. At last somebody solved it, amidst much rejoicing. “These guys are as crazy as we are,” said one rep. Google gave the museum $2 million—the best return on a $350 investment that former quantitative specialist Whitney has ever seen. (The number is 212-542-0566. Add = and x to that to get the equation: 212 - 542 = -05 x 66.)
Creating a Cultural Village
Members of the Clark family, heirs to the Singer Sewing Company fortune, have resided in the bucolic village of Cooperstown, New York, since the mid-1800s. When the Depression damaged the area’s prosperity, Stephen Clark and other representatives of the Clark Foundation (founded in 1931) sought to revive local business and tourism by creating a museum celebrating the national pastime. The Baseball Hall of Fame cheered up Americans in 1936 by announcing its inaugural class of five members—Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson.
The Hall went on to become a classic of American culture, and the progenitor of many other museums. It attracts 350,000 visitors a year, has a $12-million annual budget, and employs 100 full-time staff in a village of a little more than 2,000 people. The current chairman of the board of directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is Jane Clark, who is also president of the Clark Foundation.
The entire Cooperstown region has become one of the great museum communities in the country, and the Clark Foundation has been instrumental in making this so. In the decades before and after the founding of the Hall of Fame, Clark relatives and foundation executives were also instrumental in building up the historic Farmers’ Museum, the Fenimore Art Museum, the New York State Historical Association, and the Glimmerglass Opera. With half a billion dollars in assets, and nearly $20 million of annual giving, the foundation also supports the historic Otesaga and Cooper inns, village beautification, land preservation, local sports, the regional hospital, and scholarships for children.
The Clark family has thus created a whole ecosystem of museums and art—and a true center of Americana.