Mathematics: The Winton Gallery, Science Museum, December 2016

2016-12-07-09-17-26“I am not very good at maths.” This is something my 9 year old says frequently every time the maths homework book comes out. It is sad and worrying that at age 9 she has already decided maths isn’t for her. I guess I have to be responsible for a degree of this attitude as my enthusiasm for her maths homework mirrors hers. Like millions of other people I struggle with maths, it is an ingrained attitude from school, it is something I am not particularly good at. But it is quite clear to me that all my kids love reading because I love reading and read to them everyday, so perhaps the fault is mine.

2016-12-07-08-30-35That fear of maths is in the back of my mind as I arrive at the Science Museum for the media view of their new permanent Mathematics Gallery. Will they make me do sums? Should I have practised my times tables? The new Winton Gallery has been generously supported by a £5 million donation from David and Claudia Harding. On the day David Harding makes clear his wish for visitors to ‘lose their fear of maths’. He wants the gallery to become a field trip destination to inspire school children. 

Curator David Rooney introduces the gallery and highlights their intent to show maths in the real world, to get under the skin of these objects and stories. His enthusiasm makes me wish he had been my maths teacher at school.

The gallery has been designed by Zaha Hadid Architects and it is a stunningly beautiful space that takes the idea of the museum gallery to a new immersive level. The concept, which has a 1929 Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aeroplane at it’s heart, is driven by the equations of airflow used in the aviation industry. The soothing curves and colours transport you into a kind of futuristic world far away from the wooden instruments, models and metal machines underneath.

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‘Release the balls!’

It certainly achieves the aim of making the maths gallery exciting and dynamic, but what of the objects and stories underneath the beautiful curves? Do they become more of a sideshow? The first object that catches my eye is ‘Guinevere’ one of the Lottery Machines used to pick those weekly balls. It is a clever way to use what we know and understand as an invitation to appreciate the maths that lies behind the objects. Similarly an early ‘hole in the wall’ cash machine, although weirdly out of place, reminds us of the ubiquitous nature of complex machines that we take for granted. In this way the use of the 1929 early aircraft is apt, it highlights how the maths behind an object can solve real world problems.The plane resulted from a $100,000 prize to develop a ‘safe aircraft’.

“There were no programmes, no calculating machines. We relied upon our slide rules and arithmetic in the margins. Lives were at stake and we couldn’t afford to let anything go wrong.” Letitia Chitty, recalling work at the Admiralty Air Deparment, 1917-1918.

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Electronic pocket calculator, 1973.

To begin with it is these everyday objects that make me smile, a nostalgic early pocket calculator from 1973 is charming and I fall in love with a Pedoscope shoe shop X-ray machine from 1950 where visitors could see on the screen their feet inside their shoes. Anyone on a recent visit to Clarks Shoe shop will know ‘iPads’ are the latest tool for measuring little ones feet, I couldn’t imagine trying to get my kids to try out the earlier, slightly scary version.

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Samuel Morland calculating machine about 1670.
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Babbage’s difference engine model after 1871.

There is a beautiful calculating machine from 1670, invented by the mathematician Samuel Morland for counting money quickly and accurately. Samuel Pepys referred to it as ‘very pretty, but not very useful’. Strangely I begin to find more beauty the more I look, Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine Model from 1871 is quite glorious with its cogs and wheels. The same cannot be said for a number of larger exhibits, bulky machines such as the Differential Analyser from 1953 with switches and cogs that seem incomprehensible, but it is here where the interpretation and carefully selected stories allow the objects to shine.

I do wonder that some objects become almost overwhelmed by the gallery design itself. A Pensions Slide Rule from the 1850s, hardly the most visually exciting object, begins to look even more mundane when competing for attention with Zaha Hadid’s swooping curves.

The objects and stories may be drawn from hundreds of years of history but the interpretation sets them very much in the here and now asking how we can hold politician’s to account without understanding basic underlying principles of money and economy. The concept of risk is also thoughtfully applied to our own physical health with a fascinating cabinet of tissue samples collected by the pathologist Chris Wagner who first proved the link between Asbestos and lung cancer. There are also exhibits on the risks involved with X-rays and toxic chemicals.

To the gallery’s credit I have forgotten any worries I had over my own failings and fear of mathematical knowledge. I am initially enticed by the sheer beauty of the space and I stay for the stories behind the remarkable objects. This merger of art and science in what feels like a living gallery space leads me to look from the beauty above me to the beauty in the objects around me and it is that beauty that spurs me to read on. Like an equation of its own it is one plus the other that equals a sum that is greater than its parts alone.

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Differential analyser, 1935. During the Second World War this machine was used to calculate the mathematics of uranium enrichment, vital in manufacturing the atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. 

I can’t help but feel in another more conventional gallery I may have walked straight past some more ‘dull’ looking exhibits. I do think the gallery will be a success, eroding that fear of maths that so many of us have. I will finish the blog with final thoughts from Zaha Hadid Architects whose founder sadly passed away this year. Their aim was to show mathematics and geometry as the basis of all architecture not an alien concept to be studied in isolation but integral to every part of life and they have taken this concept throughout the whole gallery.

I began by talking of my daughter and describing how she feels maths is not for her. The Winton Gallery sets maths, people and stories as integral and intertwined with the real world. By showing maths is in everything it shows me and I hope in the future my daughter too that maths is for everyone and doesn’t have to be something we fail with at such a tender age.

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The new Mathematics – The Winton Gallery is a permanent free exhibition opening on 8th December 2016. For more information and opening times please see the website https://beta.sciencemuseum.org.uk/mathematics

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