As the world miniaturises and computerises, the Science Museum has opened a new gallery that delights in the massive mechanics of mathematics.
Much of the attention given to the revamped gallery is on the huge instagram friendly Zaha Hadid designed waveform which dominates the room, but it is both a mathematical form, and also deliberately placed.
The old gallery, a rather dusty collection of around 600 objects in old museum cases was seem more as a zone to pass through to more interesting things, so the revamp puts a massive barrier in the way, forcing people to wander around the gallery.
The old space was also treated more as a short cut as it talked about maths. Scary, boring maths. No one likes maths. Lets go somewhere more exciting.
And that is a problem. In a world increasingly dependent on the application of mathematics, young people, understandably prefer the physical sciences, where things can be touched and messed around with. Often quite messily messed around with.
How can algebra compete with bubbling chemicals in a test tube?
The new gallery has ditched the old cabinets of slide rules and boxes of weights and strange symbols and focused on a smaller number of objects that are in of themselves, worth seeing.
The maths is a background hum within the space, ever present, seductively whispering in your ear as you look at old things, new things, strange things, all linked by the fact that it took maths to build them, or that it was to expose maths that they were created for.
It’s much more exciting to look at a big machine made from metal with cogs that turn and wheels that move, than a blackboard filled with numbers. It is the abstract turned into reality.
Most of the exhibits, now in larger cases with more space to wander around them, are essentially, early computers. Whether it’s a Commodore Pet, and early microcomputer, or a massive machine with cogs and gears, they are all precursors of the anonymous lump of plastic we all carry in our pockets.
We carry around a smartphone with more computing power than people could have imagined, just a decade ago — but as computing shrinks and becomes anonymised behind generic screens, the ability to understand the fundamental functions they perform is lost.
To see 2+2 rendered in front of you as a living force that causes machines to come alive with tangible movement gives maths a life that it otherwise lacks.
A famous, within some circles, machine built by Bill Phillips in 1952 for the London School of Economics uses water instead of electrons, flowing through plastic pipes instead of silicon, to model the British economy.
It’s certainly a lot easier to understand, and believe the output of the calculations if you can see the actual workings in action.
Early attempts to convert abstract numbers in books into physical machines were driven by the main forces of mankind — military, trade, and finance.
A gigantic machine, looking not unlike it belongs in a factory waving fabrics was a manufacturer of betting odds instead.
Shops used to resound to the noise of mechanical tills as shop staff pressed buttons to animate gears and force numbers to pop up in displays, whereas today the same function is hidden behind beeps and warnings of unexpected items in bagging areas.
An early Enigma machine is probably the highlight of the display due to its fame alone, but for me, a beautiful wooden cabinet showing off weights and measures from around the British Empire is delightfully anachronistic in a space of plastics and metals.
A massive cargo ship might not seem obviously mathematical in nature, but the engineering that turns tiny numbers into massive machines is what it seeks to impress upon young minds.
That big things can only be big thanks to architects being able to use an understanding of mathematics to model structures, concrete strength and wind flow is shown off in the form of the old Natwest Tower.
And wind flow dominates the room, in the curving space overhead and under your feet. The giant billowing waves with their geometric lines represent the wind flowing around the plane that hangs in the centre of the gallery.
It’s exhibit and building combined to form a single encompassing entity that weaves its way around the space.
This is not a gallery to come to if you want to learn maths.
It is a space to wander around if you want to see why maths matters. What maths can do. Where maths makes a difference.
Arthur C Clarke famously said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” and we are close to the point where people are starting to lose an instinctive understanding of how that lump of technology in their pocket works. It’s becoming magical because we can’t look at it and see how it works.
This gallery attempts to put the magic back into maths.