‘No Numbers Here’: Math Museum Founder Glen Whitney

We live in a world surrounded by numbers.

Whether we’re balancing our checkbooks, reading recipes or calculating what the best deals at the supermarket are, chances are you’re thinking, writing and communicating in numbers.

There’s now a museum in New York City that is centered on math but has very few numbers.

Glen Whitney is the executive director of the National Museum of Math in Manhattan and says there’s a lot more to math.

“Math touches on so many things in the world around us there’s a connection between mathematics and music, connection with engineering, between mathematics and business, between mathematics and art,” said Whitney. “And we want to show all those parts of mathematics here.”

A math enthusiast since the age of 14, Whitney said his love for numbers continued to grow when he realized math was more about what new things he could discover that no one had ever seen before.

After a career as a math scholar and then a professor at the University of Michigan, Whitney became involved coaching his daughter’s elementary school math league. He realized there was not a place to nurture kids’ curiosity about numbers and science.

“MoMath,” the new museum, is not the first of its kind. About 20 years ago there was a small math museum on New York’s Long Island called the Goudreau Museum. When Whitney learned it was closing in 2008, he decided there was a need for such a place in the city. During the time of development, a team of leaders led by Whitney found there was not a museum of mathematics in the U.S.

“I thought it would be an opportunity to do something new and it would be larger in scope and it would really hopefully make a difference in our country,” said Whitney. “It’s wonderful. You’re right here in the middle of Manhattan as opposed to Long Island, you can be walking down the street and discover this little gem.”

To date, the museum has raised over $22 million. It opened on Dec. 15, 2012 and has welcomed more than 18,000 visitors.

“We’re looking for somebody that is curious. We want to spark that curiosity. Maybe you think you don’t like math. That is our best customer, so to speak,” said Whitney. “Somebody who thinks they don’t like math but has the curiosity to see more and to try playing.”

The best way to do that, says Whitney, is if parents educate their children in new and unique ways.

“With young kids, just show them the shapes in the world around them,” said Whitney. “It doesn’t have to be the kind of problems that you hated when you were in high school, doing those algebra word problems or whatever. Any place where pattern comes in, where shapes come in or fitting things together. It is as simple as this.”

Aside from teaching your kids about the importance of math in everyday life, Whitney stresses the importance of knowing what jobs and careers are available to those with interests in math.

“We generally work with, at the museum, those who have also worked in the Office of Science of Technology Policy for both the Clinton and the Obama administrations, who tell us that the lack of American mathematicians is the number-one security threat to this country,” said Whitney. “Because the National Security Agency that is responsible for monitoring communications around the world, key part of our intelligence services, is the largest employer of mathematicians in the world, and they have open positions all the time.”

He said S.T.E.M. -- science, technology, engineering and math programs -- are in need of individuals who are excited to pursue a career in math.