Putting the Joy into Mathematics For Everybody
On Monday 28th September Bernhard Ganter, Professor of Science at the renowned university TU-Dresden in Germany, co-founder and co-director of the Museum of Mathematics, Erlebnisland-Mathematik, will give a public lecture at HSE on Mathematics as an Adventure.
In an interview with Anna Chernyakhovskaya, the News Editor of HSE English News service, Bernhard Ganter explains how his museum has attracted 500,000 visitors most of whom are not much interested in mathematics. His aim is to give Mathematics’s poor image a makeover and he has more plans to put into action. He reveals the secret of success of his museum and even makes Anna, a confessed math-phobe, want to visit. Professor Ganter also talks about his long and continuing collaboration with HSE, in particular with the Head of HSE’s School of Data Analysis and Artificial Intelligence (at the Faculty of Computer Science) Sergei Kuznetsov.
— How did you decide to start the Museum of Mathematics after so many years of research and teaching?
— Teaching is also a kind of public activity but already, back in the 1980s, I took part in making exhibitions about science and mathematics so I had a little bit of experience. There was a complicated process to apply for funding, but when we got support from the government and a large amount of money, then we had to make the museum, that was the main trigger, but we wanted to do it. It’s a municipal, city museum, and it’s in the museum of technology, Technologies Collection, Dresden, essentially we have an entire floor there, about 1,000 square metres.
— Did you dream about the museum like Mendeleev dreamt about his periodic table? And how long did it take you to make it all happen?
— We had a big shock, it was completely impossible, but we had to create it all in 8 months! It’s not possible, but we did it! The government said, ‘We will give you the money, but next year  is the year of mathematics, so you have to open it next year’, and we only found out in December 2007. I’ll tell the story in my lecture, it was a miracle that it worked.
We don’t have any texts — the whole exhibition is hands on — see it, feel it, play and so on...well, we do have short texts to explain the exhibits, but we don’t have any teaching, no problems to solve, no exercises, no theory. It’s all just an experience. You go there and you feel fine, and that’s the trick
— But you didn’t quit teaching?
— No. As a professor in Germany I have a lot of freedom. The museum was accepted as a university project. So it was part of my work to do it although I did it voluntarily, of course. I didn’t cheat on the university and I did my full teaching load, that was no problem.
— I wasn’t good at mathematics at school. 2 + 2 is probably my ceiling. I’ve survived without it so far but could I have been better at it?
— This is the most complex question. We give a very surprising answer to that and that’s what people like. We don’t have any texts — the whole exhibition is hands on — see it, feel it, play and so on...well, we do have short texts to explain the exhibits, but we don’t have any teaching, no problems to solve, no exercises, no theory. It’s all just an experience. You go there and you feel fine, and that’s the trick. It’s all physical, there’s almost no digital stuff. There are some computers, computers are everywhere but it’s essentially all physical. It’s play, it’s a challenge, it’s interesting.
— What is your target audience for the museum?
— The money came from the adult education programme but of course the main audience is school children. Schools come every day. We’ve had about half a million visitors which is a lot. Dresden is a city of half a million people and we had half a million visitors so if you were to do it in Moscow that’s like having 10 to 15 million visitors, it’s 5,000 visitors a day. You cannot do that in a museum. So we really have a lot of visitors. Many of them don’t come by themselves but are brought by their teachers. They like it and they come back with their parents. But you were asking about the target audience. At the moment we have a problem that we had an unexpected strong visit by a group of under 3s! We don’t have the personnel to look after them. They come with their parents but the parents get interested in the exhibition and they don’t keep an eye on their children. The children start making problems...so we have all ages.
— In Russia there are some programmes aimed at adults to teach them computer literacy. They are put on by NGOs and telecommunications companies…
— That’s very important but it is a different thing. We think the problem with mathematics is not about the availability of knowledge. You can get mathematical knowledge everywhere if you want to, but the problem is people don’t want to. People say, ‘I have no interest in mathematics, actually do away with mathematics’ and there are many reasons for that, and we are working on that. Not on the information but on the attitude, the feeling, the image of mathematics.
— OK! Let’s take me. I’ve been a journalist my whole life and I work with words, literature. I’m no good at mathematics, I already confessed, so what do you say to me?
— I don’t say anything. You come to our exhibition, you have fun. You say, ‘I’ll stay for ten minutes,’ and you stay for two hours and you have happy eyes and you smile and then I say,’we win!’
Mathematics has such a bad image, but if people are there for two hours and they are happy and if children have their birthday party in the Mathematics museum then we have done our thing. That is what we need
— So how do you do it, through play?
— It’s a mixture. For example we do it through design. The exhibition was nominated for the German Design Award, it won the Saxonian Design Award. We have professional designers and you go in there and you expect mathematics - something on the blackboard, something not very aesthetic. But the room is beautifully lit and filled with good colours, good shapes, good material...and you find about 100 things which you can play with somehow but where you feel that there is something deep behind it. You don’t have to understand what that is, but you feel that there’s a field with not just one but a great many aspects, and you can touch it and somehow experience it...That’s the adventure, that’s what we do. Mathematics has such a bad image, but if people are there for two hours and they are happy and if children have their birthday party in the Mathematics museum then we have done our thing. That is what we need.
— What were your most exciting moments since you started working on the museum?
— The most exciting moment was on the day we opened. The house was full, you couldn’t move. My daughter came over and she said that there is a child sitting on the stairs and crying because the parents want to leave but the child doesn’t! We have a guest book and many funny things in it. We have some Russian remarks, but I don’t know if they are nice or nasty! There was one my wife noticed, a girl in very careful writing: ‘We visited the exhibition, our father could explain a lot because he is an engineer and he thinks more logically than we do but, nevertheless, we had fun!’
I should say that ours is not the only exhibition. There is a much older one, in the middle of Germany, in Geisen, near Frankfurt. And in 2012, one opened in New York which makes a lot of noise because it is private and has to make money - MoMath, like MOMA (Museum of Modern Art). We held an international conference with them in our museum about mathematics museums. We had about 70 participants including some from Russia, but not from Moscow.
— Your museum doesn’t have virtual tours… I understand that you are afraid if you put everything online, then people won’t come. But what more can be done to promote mathematics and how, because you say it has a bad image?
— When we organized this international conference with MoMath, they wanted it to be in the United States but when we made a map of where most mathematics museums are in the world we found 3 in America, including South America, and something like 45 in Europe. So Europe is the hub of these activities. There is a virtual museum organized by the German Science Foundation and it is partly funded by European Union money, I think. It’s called Imaginary. Under imaginary.org you get a free access. I think what they are doing is very important, nevertheless it is closer to science. We are closer to schools. But they are investing a lot of effort...
The group here at HSE is doing basic, fundamental research. But it’s much more applied than what I’m doing. They are interested in data science more generally, which is a hot topic in today’s computer science and data analysis. They are one of the leading groups of the world
— Let’s talk about your cooperation with HSE. How did it start?
— That’s a very long story. I find it difficult to recall, I think it’s started around 1997, we got in contact with Sergei Kuznetsov. Since then we’ve had permanent very successful mathematical contact. Dr Obiedkov from the Faculty of Computer Science has been to Dresden for a year. Several HSE scholars have been visiting researchers in Dresden. We’ve had a lot of joint publications, we organized joint conferences. Just recently, one of HSE graduates, Artem Revenko from the School of Data Analysis and Artificial Intelligence, did his PhD in Dresden — he did the double PhD — one German and one Russian.
The group here at HSE is doing basic, fundamental research. But it’s much more applied than what I’m doing. They are interested in data science more generally, which is a hot topic in today’s computer science and data analysis. They are one of the leading groups of the world. I’m a mathematician and I’m responsible for much more special mathematical theory which they use and which they also contribute to. They are good in this theory, and much better than I would ever understand in data science in general. I feel strong in the area of that special field of mathematics and that’s the field of mathematics that was invented forty years ago and that’s what I’m going to speak about. It’s a very good and professional cooperation.
I think the quality of PhD students here clearly compares or it is even better than the quality of PhD students at our university. I shouldn’t say they are better because our rector will hit me! But it’s a very good level. Several visitors from HSE have done teaching at our university, they had undergone very strict examinations. Of course, they worked for it, but they had good chances. We have visitors from many countries where we have much bigger problems, this is not the case. And I should say that I work at the university at Dresden that is one of 11 that the German government identifies as Universities of Excellence! It sounds very impressive! We are not a low-level university.
— Now, what about the lectures you are giving at HSE, what are they going to be about?
I’ll give four lectures while I’m here. Two for students on mathematics and data science. One for the department, a usual faculty colloquium and then Sergei Kuznetsov asked me to give a special talk about the museum and I agreed because whenever you put a year of work into something you want to talk about it a lot.
— Can you say what is next in your plans of cooperation with HSE University?
— I am at the end of my career, I’m a senior researcher, but we have lots of plans, at the moment I’m working together with Dr. Obedkov on a very important book. We’ve been working on it for ten years already and it must be ready soon. And it requires some effort but we have to do that, so it will be a strong cooperation. The other project I’m working on at the moment is another museum project, because we want to make a contribution to the current political situation. So we will make an exhibition and the government is willing to fund it, it’s a temporary exhibition inside our museum on mathematics from the Islamic countries. The Middle Ages was a very good time in Islam…
— Avicenna, of course! And again, in the style of our exhibition we will not explain much but we will give people ornaments, works of art, the thoughts of medieval mathematicians, which is difficult material to understand today. We think it is easy but they already had ways to solve very complicated problems. We won’t have much text but we’ll have a piece of art as a puzzle for people to put together and they can experience all the geometry that is inside. In our standing exhibition we have a gothic church window, and we have cut it into the pieces that the stone cutters used — those windows were made of pieces, and we have put the pieces on a table so people can combine them and realise that it’s quite difficult.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
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