Minds of Modern Mathematics. IBM/Eames Office. For iPad. Free download.
Reviewed by Jennifer Ouellette
Visitors to the New York Hall of Science in Queens can browse through an impressive installation called "Mathematica: A World of Numbers... and Beyond." Now that exhibit has a digital equivalent in Minds of Modern Mathematics, a new interactive iPad app from IBM/Eames Office released last year.
The original installation dates back to 1961, when the California Museum of Science and Industry opened in Los Angeles, and asked IBM to contribute an exhibit. IBM tapped designer Charles Eames and his wife Ray Eames -- inventors of the classic "Eames chair" among other items -- and the result was "Mathematica."
A duplicate exhibit was made for the Museum of Science and Industry later in 1961, which has since been sold to Boston's Museum of Science as a permanent display (a QuickTime VR can be found here). And in 1964, another copy of the exhibit debuted at the New York World's Fair.
This new iPad app is based on a timeline poster produced in 1966 that grew out of the original "Mathematica" exhibit, featuring the men of modern mathematics from 1000 AD through 1960. So it's got quite an esteemed pedigree. Unfortunately, the end result is disappointing. The original was hugely popular, inspiring the public to embrace math and science; the strongest emotion elicited by the iPad version is a muted "Meh" -- at least in this reader.
It is not without its merits. There are over 500 very short biographies and milestones included in the timeline, complete with colorful images. But it would have been nice to extend and update the original timeline beyond 1960, and maybe include a few more women so that poor Emmy Noether has some company. Yes, men have dominated the field, but it need not be such an unrelenting sausage fest. Where is Sophie Germain? Maria Gaetana Agnesi? Sophia Kovaleskaya (a.ka. Sonia Kovalevsky)?
The best feature of the iPad app is the inclusion of the IBM Math Peep Shows, a series of short films created by the Eames for the original exhibit on such topics as symmetry, topology, exponents, the story of how Eratosthenes measured the Earth, and mathematical functions:
I embedded that video from YouTube. And therein lies the biggest shortcoming of Minds of Modern Mathematics: everything on it is pretty much publically available in this digital age -- the biographies are little more than brief paragraphs with links to Wikipedia entries, which is the epitome of laziness.
Seriously: would it have killed IBM to at least commission some original copy to really bring the stories and personalities alive? How about designing a few interactive functions to enable users to get their hands dirty, virtually speaking, and explore some of the cooler aspects of the world of math that way? The Eames videos are charming, but they're still passive. Math, like physics, is more of a contact sport.
This is a real shame, because Minds of Modern Mathematics is touted as a tribute to the creative and intellectual legacy of Charles and Ray Eames, who embodied the spirit of innovation. They deserve something more than a slick repackaging of old material.
Then again, the app is free. I guess you get what you pay for.
Image: IBM's Mathematica exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair. Credit: IBM.
Jennifer Ouellette is the author of several popular science books, most recently The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse and the forthcoming Me, Myself and Why: Searching for the Science of Self. She also blogs at Cocktail Party Physics. Follow her on Twitter.