by Maria Roman
We left the Williamstown mountains behind as the early morning sun began to peek through the windows of the tiny bus. There was a journey ahead, but to be honest, I vaguely had any idea of what we were about to encounter. I lazily looked out the window as we got closer to the city, my homegirl Shakira blasting through my headphones. It almost felt like that scene in Zootopia where the little country rabbit sees the huge metropolitan city for the first time. I had been in New York multiple times… but never with the hopes of spending a whole day doing math problems, which to my surprise, felt like the perfect Saturday plan.
Looking back, I was not disappointed. From the second we stepped in, the National Museum of Math was a logical wonderland that I could have gotten lost in for hours, from the bike with square wheels, to the funky spinning chairs and the human tree, to the puzzles, non-euclidean geometry, tessellating patterns and 3D printed geometrical figures. The two-floor museum was as elegant, fun and modern as it was thought-provoking and educational for all levels of mathematics.
Nonetheless, with all of the crazy puzzles and weird, quirky games, my professor and I spent the most time on what seemed to be the simplest of puzzles: Sixth Sense.
In this little number grid, you had to arrange all of the numbers in such a way that any four chosen numbers from one row and one column added up to 34. We spent more than one hour trying to come up with a solution, considering planes of symmetry, grouping numbers in a variety of combinations, and worked with a few of the math majors who attended the field trip… all to find out that the best way to obtain the right combination was to assign the numbers in order from least to greatest.
And still, even with the simplest puzzles, any kind of given assumption does have complex and intricate ideas. The Sixth Sense solution did, in fact involve some planes of symmetry, some ideas in combinatorics, and was slightly more complex than it looked like from its straightforward answer. However, this doesn’t mean that such complexity should feel overwhelming and impossible, and not deriving the correct answer immediately was perfectly fine, because what mattered most was playing with ideas and knowledge, experimenting, and asking questions about the possibilities.
I think especially for myself, doing such a problem made me realize that I have the habit of assuming that any math problem is inaccessible and overly complicated, a stereotype reinforced by years of not-so-great math classes and teacher experiences that (with a few great exceptions) had the tendency to make mathematics appear as an exclusive, distant subject only meant for a select few.
We left the museum and walked around Madison Square Park to realize that this tiny two-floor wonder was just the beginning, and nothing around me looked the same. The tall skyscrapers were now gigantic mathematical questions and geometrical concepts, aesthetically modelled to withstand the forces of gravity. Our infrastructure was nothing more than logical planning, and the people walking happily could be observed statistically and mathematically, both from a chemical and biological standpoint, all the way to their social behaviors and attitudes. Everything seemed just slightly newer, and slightly more mysterious than before.
The trip made me feel grateful to have had the opportunity to travel and learn, with the help of invested professors such as Professor Harris and support from the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) at Williams College.
Biography: Maria Roman is a first-year prospective Chemistry and Mathematics major at Williams College. She is a Research Assitant in the Chemistry department, and in the future hopes to have a career in medicine and global public health.