Last week during my New York trip with DG, we went to the National Museum of Mathematics! I was so excited. We attended the Math Encounters: “Space, Time, and the Fourth Dimension” with Robbert Dijkgraaf, who was the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study. A little glimpse of the event:
Albert Einstein discovered that time should be seen as a fourth dimension that can be added to the three dimensions of space. What exactly does this mean? Can one imagine higher dimensions? How does geometry work in four-dimensional spacetime? And how does this help us understand fundamental questions in physics like the Big Bang, black holes, and the behavior of elementary particles according to the rules of quantum mechanics?
The whole exhibit was actually closed off for the event. I was a little bummed because there were a couple of exhibits I wanted to check out. The Hoop Curves, Sixth Sense, and the Enigma Café seemed pretty cool.
However, I’ll be back to check out the exhibit next time I’m in New York!
Huge thank you to the Museum of Mathematics for letting DG and I come by and check out the presentation. I wish I could explain to you all about how excited DG was about this. He loves learning about the fourth dimension and couldn’t stop talking about it afterward.
During my trip to the Museum of Mathematics, I got the chance to interview Cindy Lawrence. Cindy is the Executive Director of MoMath.
Prior to the interview, I watched a couple of videos and read some articles about Cindy. I didn’t want to ask her similar questions to ones she has already answered. Being a college blogger and female in STEM (currently studying Mathematics at Arizona State University), I tried to ask questions that I felt like my audience would like to know.
Can you share your back story about how you got into math? And how you got into opening the Museum of Mathematics?
Yes, I will try to make a long story short. I’ve always loved math. Ever since I was a kid, it was always one of my favorite subjects in school. I thought maybe I would major in math in college, but I ended up going a different route. It wasn’t until I had children that I had the opportunity to play with math and rediscover my joy with math again as a parent, seeing math through the eyes of her children.
At some point, because I was trying to provide math enrichment for my children, I got involved with a group of like-minded parents and we started running a program for gifted math students, which ended up being at Brookhaven National Lab ultimately, which is where it still is today.
I was able to then meet other adults who were very interested in mathematics and one of them was a mathematician who actually had the idea to start this museum. I was simply an eager volunteer and said, “That sounds like such a great idea. Please let me know how I can help.”
I ended up helping and the first thing we did was build and bring a traveling exhibition of mathematics to the World Science Festival in 2009 to see what people would think about it. A lot of people thought that a math museum wasn’t a good idea because by and large people don’t necessarily love math, or they don’t think they love math.
The traveling exhibit was a proof of concept that showed if you package math in a way that’s understandable, engaging, and enjoyable that people actually do like math.
The traveling exhibit ended up being popular and we were able to raise enough money to open this museum. My personal involvement went from being a volunteer who was voluntary for a single day event, to being a volunteer who was working pretty hard on this project, to being a volunteer who was working more on the volunteer project then on her own job. It got to the point where I couldn’t really keep the job I had outside of the museum and also keep working on the museum. I had to make a choice.
At that point I was just so excited about this project that I left the job that I have had for 18 years and I wasn’t looking for a new job, but this became so exciting and so compelling to me that I actually did leave my prior job and then officially become an employee of the museum and then worked my way up to now being the director of the museum.
What was the most interesting thing that has happened to you since opening the museum?
Wow, that’s really hard because there have been so many incredible, interesting, fantastic experiences. I think rather than being able to pull out one, I would just say in general it’s the people I’ve gotten to meet. It’s meeting people like Robert Dijkgraaf, who just gave this phenomenal talk. He’s obviously this brilliant scientist and can talk about science and math in a way that everyone in that room could get a glimpse of sort of the really advanced work that he does and feel the excitement and be captivated by it.
I’ve met so many people like Robert. Each brilliant in their own way and that has been the most exciting, most special part of being part of this project.
What are some exciting or fun projects you are working on or are you working on any exciting projects now?
We’re always working on exciting projects. The gallery that we’re standing in (Composite Gallery) was a very exciting project for me because the idea was to put a bunch of math cartoons and a gallery and that was neat. But very quickly when I started looking at the cartoons, names started popping into my head, “Oh, this is the kind of math that Steven Strogatz does. This is the kind of math that Doris Schattschneider is involved with.”
It suddenly became apparent to me that I could probably get quotes from mathematicians whose work really was related to the subject of the cartoons and that would add another dimension. That’s one thing about being a young, new vibrant institution is when somebody has an idea, we’re like, “Yeah, that sounds great. Let’s do it.”
Another thing that’s a reasonably new initiative is that we bring in a very prominent mathematician to work with us for a year.
We have a fields medalist with us right now, Dr. Manjul Bhargava, and it’s been phenomenal working with him. We’ll be bringing Peter Winkler next year. He’s a mathematician from Dartmouth who specializes in puzzles. I’m really excited to see what that year will bring. We’ve got somebody hopefully who will come here. I can’t say the name yet, but I’ll be very excited to announce that, so that’s exciting and new.
Another newish sort of thing that we’ve done is we’ve established New York City’s only math festival. Once a year in the summer, we bring some of our exhibits that are portable downtown. Not too far from Wall Street to the Liberty Plaza. We put on a whole free festival for the public. That’s all about mathematics and ultimately, what we’re trying to do is show people that math actually is cool. It’s fun, it’s exciting. You can enjoy it and you can play with it. People just don’t think about math that way typically.
Do you have any advice for aspiring to be in the stem field?
Yes, the advice I have is to seek out people who are in the field there. There are women out there who are phenomenal mathematicians, physicists, scientists. They’re just not that obvious because there aren’t as many women as men. There are groups out there, for example, the Association of Women in Mathematics.
I think it’s really important for young girls to find a peer group and a mentor group. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. If you look around and every math professor you’ve ever loved is male, subconsciously, there’s a thought that this is maybe a men’s game. The women are there and you have to be a little bit more active to find them.
We have a lot of women involved in our sphere here, especially next month’s math encounters. There will be a female presenter the month after that. So in particular in the New York area, I would encourage women who want to go into mathematics or STEM in general, come to those lectures. They’re free. These women will talk to you. They will tell you about their experience. They will tell you what was easy, what was hard, and you will be encouraged to keep going.
It doesn’t matter that you don’t see a ton of women when you take the first look. You have to look a little more closely. They’re there. My words would be, “You can do this. You can do this just as well, or even better than any man”. You have to really be willing to try and make it work. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t see 50/50 men and women.
You can help us change that ratio.
Thank you so much to Cindy Lawrence for letting me interview her! This was my first time interviewing someone for my blog! Let me know what you think and if I should interview more people.