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[Comments] (5) Bed, Math, and Beyond: When I was a kid there was an awesome math exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. Most of the other exhibits were chintzy early-80s interactive things where you'd pretend to run a McDonalds, or answer questions about acid rain to be rewarded with 30 seconds of Frogger. The math exhibit was not interactive; it just showed you awesome things that you would just mess up if you could touch them, like a demonstration of probability using balls that clattered through a pachinko machine to form a bell curve. Man, I loved that exhibit. There was lots of text I didn't read, and a huge timeline that I didn't really pay attention to, but it was comforting to know it was there. Surely, people who had put that much work into a math timeline were competent to model the normal distribution.

I've mentioned this exhibit before, in the context of the second time I saw it: in the Exploratorium in 2002. The exhibit is called "Mathematica: A World of Numbers... and Beyond", and it was on tour! I figured it would go back to Los Angeles afterward.

One of our corporate trips when we went to Boston was to the Boston Science Museum. This is an old-school wunderkammer museum that believes in showing off everything it's got with minimal overarching theme. A section of the bottom floor is full of cool model ships in glass cases, each donated by the widow of the guy who built the ship.

There's also a special self-justifying exhibit on collecting and classifying. And the Tinkertoy computer, a huge van de Graaff generator, a little Massachusetts state flag that was taken on Apollo 11, casts of hands with different developmental problems, stuffed animals in simulated biomes, glitzy biotech exhibit bought and paid for by Massachusett's biotech industry, diorama of people building a pyramid, etc. And the Mathematica exhibit!

Still on tour? I doubted the Boston Museum of Science would let any exhibit leave its premises once it had been set up. What was going on here? In a fit of brilliance, Ray and Charles Eames mass-produced the museum exhibit itself and gave it out to hungry museums across the land! "Two identical copies of the exhibition were made by the Eames Office in the sixties and they currently reside in Boston and Atlanta." The main one is right next door to me, having moved from LA to the New York Hall of Science.


Posted by Nick Moffitt at Mon Nov 19 2007 03:26

I don't know if it had an appropriately Wolframesque name like Mathematica, but when I visited the exhibit in Boston I could remember nearly every individual piece as an exhibit somewhere in the Seattle Science Center on the old 1962 World's Fair site.

There was no overarching theme, no timeline, but the steel balls rolling gravity ellipses and the pachinko bell curve generator were definitely at Seattle Center for at least a decade. I also remember playing with the sand pendulum design toy and looking perplexedly through glass kaleidoscope boxes that flattened collections of 3-d objects into 2-d patterns through the magic of NOT LETTING YOU USE ONE EYE!

So I might actually suggest that there was a degree of mass-production involved. I'm confident that if you go to the Seattle Science Center today, you'll still be able to find noisy proof of the standard distribution repeated every ten minutes.

Posted by Leonard at Mon Nov 19 2007 09:26

Random websites claim that the SSC copy of the exhibit moved to Atlanta in 1980. When did you see the exhibit? Maybe they moved the exhibit in 1980 but left unbranded copies of the toys as a consolation prize. Or maybe you're just older than I'd thought.

Posted by Susie at Mon Nov 19 2007 13:12

I am sorry to say that the California Science Center (http://www.californiasciencecenter.org/) is no longer as cool. This may only be because I am not six. But it is "free"! The only exhibit that I remembered was the baby chicks.

Posted by Leonard at Mon Nov 19 2007 23:15

Oh, they had baby chicks at the Boston Science Museum too! They were cute.

Posted by Rachel at Tue Nov 20 2007 11:06

ohhh I remember those...

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