Mathematica is Closing!

I can’t believe it. First The Hilltop Steakhouse and now this! Boston’s losing its long-standing icons.
Mathematica was an exhibit on mathematics commissioned by IBM for the California Museum of Science and Industry in 1961. It was designed and built by the husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames, and was filled with quotes, cartoons, models (many of them working and moving), and exhibits of surprising clarity and wit. There was a giant Moebius strip with a motorized arrow moving along its surface to show that it had only one, a gravity well funnel with rolling shiny ball bearings to illustrate gravitational attraction, a dropping-ball model to illustrate the Binomial Distribution (the piles of balls eventually lined up perfectly with the pre-painted distribution curve painted on the wall), a bi-axial pendulum with sand leaking out that could create Lissajous figures, wire frames that dipped into soap solutions to create minimum surfaces, and more. Behind it all was a Mathematics Timeline showing the lives of famous mathematicians and events in mathematical history over the past several centuries.…_and_Beyond
The original went up in LA, but they built duplicates. One went to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. This is the one that’s currently at the Boston Museum of Science. I think the LA one is now at the Hall of Science in New York City.
well, the one at the Boston MOS, which has been there since 1981*, is coming down next month. It certainly needs to be cleaned up and repaired – the projective Geometry models have fallen somewhat, and don’t line up right anymore. A LOT of the balls from the Binomial Distribution device have been lost, and they no longer come up to the painted curve. The model of the cylinder/ellipse intersection has slipped so that it no longer really illustrates the principal it’s supposed to. I’ve NEVER seen the “comet” on the Gravity Well in operation. Some of the items – which you aren’t supposed to touch – have been touched so often that they’ve been obliterated. And the whole thing is looking dated.

Still, it’s a powerful and compelling teaching tool, and I’ll be sad to see it go. I don’t know if it’s going to be retired, or will move on elsewhere. Apparently the only other remaining exhibit is the one at the Hall of Science in New York. The exhibit is slated to close next month, January of 2014.

“Mathematica” wasn’t alone. The Eames also did a lot of the things for the IBM Pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair (taking some of them from “Mathematica” itself. Certainly I recognize the same cartoon style).’s+Fair+IBM+pavilion&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=dA2eUoqGKY_NsQSy9YDwBA&ved=0CEMQsAQ&biw=1920&bih=965

I believe they also did an exhibit for the New York Hayden Planetarium in the 1960s called, IIRC, “Astronomica”, about which I can find nothing on the Internet. They’re also responsible for the film Powers of Ten

*Although all the sources swear that the exhibit came to the MOS in 1981,m I could swear it was there when I was a student at MIT earlier. The Mathematics Time Line, which forms a backdrop to the exhibit, was also released as a long poster. They had a copy of this posted outside the MIT Undergraduate office until just a couple of months ago, when they closed the entire corridor down for renovation. I have my own copy of the poster, which I obtained from the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

The Astronomical exhibit was titled Astronomia, not Astronomica. Here’s a portion of it (not the whole thing:

and another:

Evidently designed by Gordon Ashby, an associate of the Eames’, and Stewart Brand and Hans Ulrich Obrist. It sure feels like the Eames work. It’s long gone, now, too. Swept away when they bulldozed the old Hayden Planetarium to build the new one.

Thanks for the heads-up. I will have to see this one more time before it goes; not necessarily for Boston, but they had another copy of this exhibit at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. I used to go there a lot when I was a kid, and was fascinated by it.

I remember reading up on it a few years ago. I thought there were four copies, and the Seattle one had moved to Atlanta. I don’t know what became of it after that. I met an exhibit designer for the MOS a few years ago and Mathematica was one of the things I asked her about. She said they were limited in what they could do for repairs because the exhibit was all under copyright (or some sort of legal protection). That may be why they haven’t replaced the balls in the probability machine. (How the devil do you lose those, anyway?)

The MOS has also stopped maintaining their solar system model. That’s kind of a drag, I wanted to do a grand tour on my bike someday.

The Museum of Science and Industry in Exposition Park, Los Angeles was a big part of my childhood and I remember that exhibit very well. I didn’t realize it had been designed by the Eameses, or that it had been replicated and moved around the country. The only piece of it I regularly see at other science museums is the gravity well.

More pictures of the Hayden Planetarium’s Astronomia, some of them in color!

I thought that this was going to be a thread about the computer algebra system.

That’s what I thought too!

Sorry to hear it was in such sad shape because it wasn’t being kept up.

I also used to have the poster of the wall chart as well as the exhibition book from Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. I lost them somewhere along the line.

Good news, everyone! Well, potentially good news. I was at the Museum of Science this week and asked about Mathematica. It’s in storage, but it sounds like they are planning to refurbish it and bring it back at some point. No schedule planned for that, yet.

It’s a bit sad, but I think it’s a good sign for the museum. The Boston Museum of Science has I think suffered a bit because it wasn’t sure whether its role was to be a place for kids to learn science (i.e. a hands-on exploratorium kind of thing), or a museum preserving old things, including old, historically interesting exhibits.

That they are taking down iconic, but older, exhibits means, I hope, that they’re moving towards more engagement and less towards ‘look at something old’.

Thanks for this news. I hope that it will go back up again. (I’m another who loved the Exposition Park (Los Angeles) version in childhood. And it had to compete against the dinos and mammoths at the Natural History Museum!)

If the problem with needed upkeep truly was restrictions created by copyright, I hope that lesson will be taken to heart by other creators of museum exhibits. Surely there would be some changes in wording that would permit maintenance without leading to undesirable changes.

Good, I was afraid the streets would be filled with homeless irrationals, talking to themselves and begging for spare reciprocals.

My husband will be very happy to hear this. He used to wander off and I’d find him in Mathematica.

I loved the Mathematica exhibit at Exposition Park, but wished they could have explained the principle behind some of the exhibits. Perhaps only a small percentage would care or try to follow, for example, how Archimedes determined the relation between cylinders, cones, and spheres of like diameters, but it would have meant a lot to those few.

Worse than the closing of Mathematica is the fact that the enormous model railroad layout on the mezzanine was taken out and thrown in the trash. Perhaps there was some kind of failure in the switch wiring which couldn’t be isolated and fixed.