Monday, July 13, 2015

Math error at Mathematica exhibit? Not so fast!

While visiting (from Virginia) Joseph Rosenfeld (15-year-old) found an equation error in Mathematica exhibit in Boston Museum of Science.
 He said there were three mistakes in the formula for the Golden Ratio — minuses where there should be pluses. They have been there, part of the Mathematica exhibit developed by Charles and Ray Eames, since 1978. No one seemed to notice. The story of how he caught the supposed errors has gone viral, and initially the Museum of Science let him know they’d be correcting the mathematical display. Reporters have reached out to the teen about his numerical wizardry.
Rosenfeld said it was simple logic.
“I immediately thought it was incorrect, but I still double-checked myself on my cellphone, going to Wikipedia and other websites,” Rosenfeld said. He even took a picture.
After a follow-up e-mail to the museum, the rising sophomore at John Handley High School received a letter from the Museum of Science. It seemed Rosenfeld’s attention to detail had paid off.
“You are right that the formula for the Golden Ratio is incorrect,” wrote Alana Parkes, the exhibit content developer at the Museum of Science. “We will be changing the – sign to a + sign on the three places it appears if we can manage to do it without damaging the original.”
But now it seems the museum has had a change of heart.
On Tuesday afternoon, Museum of Science spokeswoman Erin Shannon released a statement saying that the Golden Ratio display in the Mathematica exhibit is correct after all.
“It’s not at all surprising that this enterprising student noticed the minus signs because the way the Museum presents the Golden Ratio in its exhibit is in fact the less common — but no less accurate — way to present it,” the statement read. “It’s exciting that people around the country are talking about math and science and that, in the process, we learned something too.”
So . . . can they both be right?
Arthur Mattuck, an emeritus professor of mathematics at MIT, said yes. The two formulas are equal. It’s just that the Golden Ratio is normally presented the way the museum did.
“There’s no logical reason it can’t be presented the other way,” Mattuck said. “The two numbers are the same even if they look different . . . the student is just presenting the fraction upside down, in other words using the reciprocal number.”
To recognize Rosenfeld’s achievement, the Eames Office is putting together a small package of Eames materials for the young mathematician.
“We figure Charles and Ray would have gotten a kick out of a student so engaged with the ideas of Mathematica that he helped make the exhibition even stronger,” said Eames Demetrios, one of the famous designers’ five grandchildren, in an e-mail.