Can Mathematically Challenged Warm Up to Numbing Numbers?

Article excerpt

For those who have never experienced infinity, here comes `Beyond Numbers,' a traveling exhibit that illuminates the mysterious world of mathematics for kid's and adults alike.

Mention "Mandelbrot set" and most people yawn. A brilliant v exhibit titled "Beyond Numbers," however, succeeds in making this and other arcane mathematical concepts interesting-even entertaining.

The traveling show, a collaboration of the Maryland Science Center and George Washington University currently on display at the Hall of Science in Queens, N.Y., is for children and adults (including those barely able to balance a checkbook). Its underlying philosophy: "Math is not just earthbound. Its patterns and relationships can be poked at, twisted and transformed to reveal new possibilities."

Toward this end, the exhibit encourages visitors to poke and twist the displays. The numerically challenged can play computer games, assemble magnetic tiles on a wall, experiment with soap bubbles -- all hands-on efforts intended to enliven abstract concepts such as Fibonacci number sequences, Mobius strips -- and Mandelbrot sets.

A Mandelbrot set is a particular kind of fractal, or a geometric pattern that repeats itself at ever smaller scales. "Do you want to zoom in on infinity?" a computer in the exhibit asks curious passersby In moments, the screen fills with what looks like a bird's eye view of a coastline, its undulating formations highlighted in blues and greens. Closeups reveal ever smaller patterns echoing the larger landscape, a process that can go on indefinitely.

Fractals are useful because they represent the way nature repeats itself. Each chamber of a nautilus shell, for instance, reveals a pattern identical to the one preceding it. By translating such patterns into mathematical terms and feeding them into a computer, scientists are able to explain all sorts of things, such as the flight of migrating birds, and make valuable predictions.

Architects and artists also have appropriated fractals. Indeed, the tiling and mosaics in the Alhambra, the splendid Moorish palace built in the 14th century, inspired Dutch artist M.C. Escher to create his famous paradoxical lithographs and woodcuts, a marriage of art and nature mediated by mathematics. …