What does Eugenia Cheng’s favorite piano piece, juggling and a Brandenberg cake have to do with mathematics? Quite a lot, surprisingly, as this Scientist in Residence from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago made clear during her December 7th presentation at the National Museum of Mathematics.
This inviting museum is tucked away at 11 East 26th Street (between 5th and Madison) in Manhattan. Eugenia Cheng’s 7pm presentation, How to Bake Pi: Making Abstract Palatable, was free but advance reservations were required. This talk was part of the monthly Math Encounters series offered on the first Wednesday of every month. It is just one of the many exciting events and opportunities offered by MOMATH which includes book clubs for adults and tweens, Family Fridays, Math Song and Math Master contests, as well as a partnership with the Wall Street Journal to present Varsity Math, twice-weekly math challenges published in the newspaper. The museum also offers after-school gifted classes, school visits and traveling math exhibits.
Refreshments were offered before the presentation, which included delicious gingered chicken teriyaki skewers, spinach-bacon tartlets and hummus with pita. Wander into the gift shop overflowing with so many interesting math books, games and models that you will vow a return trip to explore.
At 5 minutes before 7pm, we were led to an attractive downstairs event space. It was quite heartening to see every chair in the venue filled, with participants ranging in age from 3 to 83.
Bedtime Math founder and author, Lauren Overdeck, gracefully introduced the evening. She stressed how children will acquire math confidence if given sufficient time to explore mathematically in a playful way. Her website, highly recommended to parents of children struggling with math knowledge or anxiety, as well as accomplished math students, includes math stories that can be explored nightly, as well as descriptions of her books, math resources and information about packaged after-school clubs.
Eugenia Cheng then spoke about how her college students have overcome a lack of interest, confidence and knowledge of mathematics through hands-on activities like cooking. She emphasized that deep math knowledge does not come from memorization but through exploration and understanding of the ideas underpinning the theory. Eugenia showed how trying to make sense of her favorite, but difficult, piano piece led her to try and visually represent the piece. The visual that she created, which looked like a 4-string braid, led her to ponder the connection to mathematical braids as well as to eventually realizing that this braid is also a visual representation of how balls travel when you juggle.
Two things struck me. First, Eugenia is a wonderful role model for children and adults of how someone can undertake an independent exploration of ideas and embark on a voyage of thinking, although difficult at times, that leads to new connections and learning. Second, how her determination and ability to show ideas in a tangible and relatable form made the whole room hum with greater understanding. What a wonderful reminder to make sure that we are, as educators, connecting learning and ideas to hands-on real-world activities in all disciplines, as well as embarking on our own learning voyages.
Next, Eugenie turned the idea of the factors of 30 (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 10, 15, 30) into a three-dimensional paper shape and invited the audience to fold flat paper into shapes by matching the factors of 30 numbers. Afterwards, she showed how a Battenberg cake can be used to represent multiple abstract patterns. Lastly, she showed how a tree diagram could represent the different permutations involved in combining ingredients to create a cake. Through it all, the children and parents were mesmerized as her love for all things mathematical just emanated from every pore of her being.
If Math is your thing, or even if you think it’s not, attend one of the upcoming Math Encounters at the National Museum of Mathematics. It may wake up a part of your brain, as it did for me, that hasn’t been used in a while. Maybe, after a visit, you’ll sign up for another event or join one of the upcoming reading tween and adult book club books. Hope to see you there!
National Museum of Mathematics