Mathapalooza! – A Celebration of Mathematics and all of its Creative Connections

Evans Harrell
Professor of Mathematics and Associate Dean Emeritus, Georgia Institute of Technology

The 21st Century is shaping up as a remarkable time for public engagement in mathematics and science. Museums, educational institutions, cities, states, and grass-roots groups of citizens across the US and around the world are celebrating mathematics with festivals and public events more often than ever before. There is an eagerness in the public to demystify mathematics and appreciate its power and beauty, and people are flocking to these events in unprecedented numbers.

Organizations have sprung up on all sides to bring mathematics out of the academy and into the public forum. One of the earliest was the Gathering for Gardner, which has met biennially in Atlanta since 1993 to celebrate Martin Gardner’s legacy of recreational mathematics and its playful connections to puzzles, games, magic acts, and visual art. In the beginning G4G was a small informal group, although it always attracted participants from the far corners of the earth. As G4G has grown it has come to sponsor local events under the banner Celebration of Mind, and the main biennial event has opened more of its activities to the public in recent years. In 2018, G4G included an exhibit at an art gallery, hands-on puzzles and games, and public presentations about the mathematics in art, music, and even Sanskrit poetry. Since 1998 the Bridges Organization has been putting on international meetings exploring mathematical connections in art, music, architecture, education, and culture, and since 2007 the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival has fostered creative mathematical contests, games, and puzzles for students. The National Museum of Mathematics opened its doors in New York in 2008, providing a home for showcasing the wonders of mathematics to the public.

Math is not alone – our sister sciences have also been engaging the public through a robust movement of local science cafés and science festivals in many cities, more and more springing up each year. Since 2009 the Science Festival Alliance has helped people share experiences, know-how, and resources for these events, including the National Mathematics Festival in Washington (since 2015).

My own involvement in the public-science movement began in earnest with the Atlanta Science Festival, which I helped launch in 2014, and which has become an annual event attracting over 50,000 participants. One of the great features of the Atlanta Science Festival has been an openness to experimentation in finding creative ways to communicate science and mathematics, in particular using the performing arts. For example, for the second ASF, Atlanta performer Nicolette Emanuelle and I created an event called Science of the Circus. In this show, science clowns – of course sporting white lab coats along with their red noses and unruly hair – explain the physics behind the acts that the professionals perform, along with the audience members who are brave enough to join in.

An abstract subject like mathematics seemed to present a special challenge for communication through performing arts, but Atlanta choreographer Kristel Tedesco had the inspiration of partnering math with dance. This was a novel idea to me, but it worked! For the 2016 and 2017 Atlanta Science Festivals our show Mathematics in Motion thrilled audiences with stories about the lives of famous mathematicians and choreographers of the past, and depictions of mathematical concepts through movement. A version of Mathematics in Motion was also taken to high schools, and these experiences led us to create another performance in the fall of 2018 popping up at public spaces around Atlanta, called The Seven Bridges of Königsberg, using original music by composer Marshall Coats and formal choreography by Tedesco to celebrate Leonhard Euler and the puzzle he wrote about, which launched the subjects of topology and graph theory. (For this show, Tedesco and I along with Georgia Tech Symphony Orchestra Director Chaowen Ting received one of the inaugural grants through the Science in Vivo program, which is part of the Simons Foundation’s Science Sandbox, administered through the MIT Museum.)

One of the lessons we learned from our experiments in communicating mathematics and science through performance is how ready, and even enthusiastic, people in the arts community are to partner with scientists to reach the populace.

This brings us to Mathapalooza!, which took place in Atlanta in March of this year. The 2018 Gathering for Gardner, Mathematics in Motion, and The Seven Bridges of Königsberg proved that Atlantans will show up, lots of them, to engage with math. How far could we scale audiences up for the 2019 Atlanta Science Festival? The idea occurred to some of us to create a big event where we could showcase any way that mathematics can touch the lives and interests of people of all ages and dispositions. We would have puzzles and games, and all of the arts we could possibly muster, whether dance, or visual art, or magic, or music, or theater. Colm Mulcahy of Spelman College and G4G, Yuliya Babenko of Kennesaw State University, and I submitted a proposal to ASF to put on an ambitious show to do exactly this. After the proposal was approved, it only remained to make good on the hype we had put out! Now, the way to produce a successful show is to find talented partners and give them the resources they need. We were fortunate to connect early on with Hector Rosario of the Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival, and this gave us access to excellent table activities, financial support, and contacts with volunteers and potential presenters. We then took the risk of renting a large recreation center and set out to fill its big gymnasium and stage with mathematical wonders. On show date, 9 March, 2019, about half of the gym was filled with Julia Robinson table activities, and many additional table activities were created for the occasion by our partners, especially Georgia Tech research groups and by GT’s student Club Math. A corner of the gym was devoted to activities geared towards young children, organized by Yuliya Babenko. But there was much, much more going on at the same time:

  • Art and sculpture. The stage became an art gallery curated by Elisabetta Matsumoto, including many pieces by notable mathematical artists with international reputations. (Some were on loan from Atlanta’s Different Trains Gallery.) This also made a very nice visual backdrop to the performances.
  • Magic. The opening performance was a magic show by Georgia Tech mathematician and renowned magician Matt Baker, who performed card tricks and wowed the audience with magic squares.
  • Music. Emory University mathematician and musician David Borthwick talked about mathematics related to music from Pythagoras to Fourier and performed canons by Bach with a string trio.
  • Dance. Mathematician Manuela Manetta and Dancer Lori Mcteague of Emory University brought audience members on stage to engage in mathematical concepts related to dance.
  • Theater. Georgia Tech students and faculty acted out seven courtroom skits on mathematical themes, including the trial of the notorious radical known as the square root of two, who was accused of being irrational, and the prosecution by an attorney named Euler of a fraudster accused of double crossing the bridges of the city of Königsberg. Audience members sat in the jury.
  • Live, interactive demonstrations. These included virtual reality tours of spaces with hyperbolic geometry and “speed cubers” solving Rubik’s famous cube puzzle and variants.

That was our vision, but would this experiment in science communication we called Mathapalooza! succeed in drawing a crowd and connecting mathematics with so many of the arts? Judge for yourself from these pictures or visit https://mathematics-in-motion.org/about/ to see more about Mathapalooza!