On my brother’s recommendation, I visited the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City. Founder and President Glen Whitney, an ex-math professor and hedge fund “quant,” graduated from our shitty high-school in Roselle New Jersey. My brother knew him. I didn’t, although his older sister might remember me singing “Back on the Chain Gang” in home room, the closest I could come as a teenager to a sociological analysis of of the American public school system.
People who do remember me in high school will remember me as being very good in history. My eleventh grade teacher Mr. Kelley used to have a “stump Stanley” quiz on Friday afternoon. My fellow students could ask me questions about United States history. I suppose he was trying to combine the joy of bullying a classmate with the educational process, but the joke was on him. I never got a question wrong. Nobody ever “stumped Stanley.”
I doubt anybody remembers that I flunked math. Interestingly enough, I got a respectable score on the math section of the SAT — it was good enough to get me into Rutgers and would have probably gotten me into one of the Ivies if I had had the grades — but I just couldn’t apply myself in geometry class. Eventually I got so sick of pretending to care I simply put a big “X” mark through the weekly quiz with the caption “I refuse to take this test” underneath. Nobody ever commented, or even noticed. I simply took the “F” and retook the course the next year.
The purpose of the National Math Museum is to reach the kind of kid I was, someone who’s smart enough to pass high-school math but just finds it too dull to apply himself. Recently, I’ve gone through a few basic Algebra texts. I’m thinking about going back to school to get a computer science degree to supplement my useless BA in English. Little has changed since the 1980s. Math textbooks are almost always poorly written. I’ve worked my way through instructions on basic Algebraic equations I understand perfectly only to come out utterly confused. I don’t envy parents with children who get stuck with bad high school math teachers or text books. I shudder to think what it’s like now with “Common Core.”
The National Math Museum doesn’t look like much when you walk in the front door. While it’s right down the block from the Flatiron Building and very easy to get to, it’s expensive, $16 dollars per person. That not only puts it out of the reach of most working class families, it makes you expect a lot more than what you see at first sight. Nevertheless, the more you explore the Museum, the more you realize how you can’t possibly experience the whole thing in only one visit. Every exhibit — and there are dozens — can take hours to get the hang of, but after you’re done, you’ve had a complex mathematical subject drilled into your head so thoroughly you’ll never forget it.
I eventually settled on the “Pythagoras Puzzler.” The concept is easy. Among the three sides of a right triangle, the square of the hypotenuse (the side opposite the right angle) is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides. You get five flat, plastic shapes. There are three empty squares. All five pieces go into the two smaller squares and into the one larger square. Getting them to fit into the smaller squares is easy. Trying to figure out how to make them fit into the larger one looks easy, but is deceptively difficult. It has to work. According to the Pythagorean Theorem, the sum of the space inside the two smaller squares has to equal the space inside the larger square. It’s a “mathematical certainty,” but good luck making it work. I sat there for almost twenty minutes scratching me head before a helpful thirteen-year-old girl finally helped me figure it out.
“That’s OK,” she said. “I’m a Russian hacker and you’re not.”
(Note to liberals: All you’re doing by demonizing Russians is making American kids think they’re cool.)
In any event, sit at the “Pythagoras Puzzler” for 20 minutes and the Pythagorean Theorem is yours forever. Work through all of the machines in the National Museum of Mathematics and you’ll probably be ready for MIT or Caltech. It’s a great place you should go to over and over again. I only wish there were a family discount. Glen Whitney, like my brother and I, went to a working-class high-school in New Jersey. He should make his museum accessible to the kids who really need it, not just rich kids in Manhattan who probably have great math teachers in high school anyway.