diamond geezer

 Friday, December 16, 2016

Maths is a dull subject and numbers are hard, but that hasn't stopped the Science Museum from opening a brand new gallery devoted to the subject.

The Winton Gallery opened last week in the space where the previous Mathematics gallery used to be. It's been paid for by a City hedge fund manager, and named after his hedge fund, so we can all see where his love of the subject has come from. But if algebra frightens you don't worry, there is no algebra here. Indeed there are barely any numbers in the updated exhibition, only objects. Anything that smacks of pure mathematics has been stashed away in a store room somewhere, and what's on show is very much applied.

The first thing that strikes you about the new gallery is how pink and full of aeroplane it is. The aircraft suspended from the ceiling is a 1929 Handley Page biplane, and the pink floaty curve thing is a model of the airflow around the wings and fuselage, divided up into three non-intersecting vortices. Apparently scientists used some branch of maths called aerodynamics to help make the plane safer, which is good news next time you fly abroad, but what's really important here is how many likes your abstract arty pink photo is going to get when you upload it to Instagram.

Because Dame Zaha Hadid designed the layout of the gallery with this symmetrical swoosh at its heart, there isn't as much room as you'd expect left over for actual maths. The remainder of the room consists of four quadrants each with a few objects in glass cases, and a fair amount of circulation space. It's ideal for running around in and occasionally ducking underneath, which should make the new gallery an enormous hit with small children, even those who yet haven't learned to count.

Various themes are used to link each part of the collection together, cunningly named with titles like Form and Beauty rather than Difficult Equations so as not to put visitors off. The architecture bit for example has a big Georgian doorcase topped off by unmentioned types of triangle, and a scale model of the Nat West Tower which apparently stays up thanks to geometrical magic. Meanwhile the money section has all sorts of obsolete calculating devices, plus a water-filled machine which supposedly mimics the economy, which probably helps explain why the country was so poor in the 1950s.

An actual National Lottery machine is on display, namely Guinevere, whose buttons were pressed by Noel Edmonds in that very first draw when he released the balls. I'm not sure where E.R.N.I.E. went - he was definitely here before, and now it seems there isn't room. But there is a mechanical 'tote' device from Wembley Stadium whose weights and pulleys calculated the odds using something called trigonometry, whereas today's betting is all done with electronics so doesn't use mathematics at all. Also some wag has put two dice in a plastic case and called it probability, whereas everyone knows luck and skill are far more important.

Sir Isaac Newton doesn't get a mention, which serves him right for being old and irrelevant. But Florence Nightingale does - it seems she wasn't just good at nursing, she invented graphs as well. Visitors with long memories will enjoy the corner about how computers started, including several big boxes full of programming, and software like Lotus 1-2-3 on floppy discs which helped kickstart the Big Bang. Sadly there are no buttons to press, because everyone likes pressing buttons, but several exhibits get touchpad displays to explain more, should this be of any interest.

Yes, the Longitude problem gets a mention, because it always does. Yes there are old weights and measures, because they're obligatory in every historical museum. Yes there's an Enigma machine, because codebreaking is sexy and can change the world. But no, there are no longer several shelves of polyhedra made out of coloured cardboard like there were in the gallery's last incarnation, because that smacks too much of a dusty maths classroom. And as for the lovingly-curated history of punched cards which used to cover one corner of the room, compiled from photos, diagrams, graph paper and inkjet-printed labels, I bet that'll never see the light of day again.

The strangest thing about the mathematics gallery is how it doesn't feel much like a mathematics gallery at all. Most of the objects you could easily imagine elsewhere in the museum, in some differently themed gallery - the aeroplane in Flight, the astronomical clock in Time, the early microcomputer in Communication and the hospital survival predictor in Medicine. It's almost as if the person who put the exhibition together was trying to tell us that maths underpins everything, whereas that's clearly ridiculous because nobody ever uses long division after they leave school.

That nerdy kid in your maths class with the spectacles would definitely enjoy the new Winton Gallery. What's more they're probably in a really well paid job by now, like finance or computing or engineering or risk management or architecture or oceanography or any number of the careers hinted at by the new displays. If you're the parent of an inquisitive child, who knows, a visit might even help persuade them that maths could be an exciting part of their future. Because it turns out that what's really important about numbers isn't how hard they are, but what we do with them.

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