When the COVID-19 pandemic struck New York last March and the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath) closed its doors to the public, little did we realize we were about to open a virtual door to the rest of the world.
A deadly public health crisis has taken over many aspects of our lives, affecting how we behave, what we read, what we talk about and what we fear. Yet within this new world context, we’ve discovered that, through the incredible richness of mathematics, MoMath is able to help create a global community of goodwill and mutual respect in an increasingly polarized world.
Math is a universal language that allows people to build new human connections even as many are continuing to physically isolate. At a time when divisiveness seems to have become all too common, MoMath is working to unite people of all ages and backgrounds through a shared enjoyment of mathematics.
Math is exceptionally well positioned to serve in this role of being a global, intergenerational online connector because at its heart, mathematics is an aesthetic pursuit. Despite what we may have learned from our past experiences, mathematics is not about learning to do arithmetic; it’s about investigating the world around us and finding universal truths that can be both beautiful and inspiring. Math transcends language and culture, and it invites people of all ages and backgrounds to enter.
When New York City shut down, the museum launched into action, welcoming its first-ever online school field trip on the very same day that it hosted its last in-person visitors. Public programs continued to run thanks to the early presenters who bravely and enthusiastically jumped into a new world of digital communication.
Over the last year, MoMath has held more than 2,800 online programs that have attracted more than 87,000 participants from all 64 U.S. states and territories, as well as more than 100 countries, including Australia, Vietnam, Guatemala, Egypt, Argentina, Indonesia, China, Pakistan, Bhutan, Sweden, Chad, Zambia and France.
Because of the current global health crisis, people are prohibited from enjoying basic forms of human contact: firm handshakes conveying warmth; collaborative efforts while leaning over a computer screen or gathering around a whiteboard; engaging in stimulating conversation over a shared meal. While we all miss, even crave, these deeply human, everyday experiences and opportunities to interact in person, at MoMath we’ve discovered previously unseen virtual opportunities for sharing and learning.
In the physical world, it can be intimidating to ask a question, especially when those around you seem to be having no difficulty keeping up with the presentation. But now, we find that the cloak of anonymity that program attendees enjoy online actually encourages discourse. With participants identified only by a first name or perhaps even a pseudonym, inhibitions are removed. In our digital programs, we regularly see questions asked—and answered—by members of a global audience coming together as a group, disregarding geographic and cultural boundaries. That an online mathematics program can provide a supportive environment encouraging free inquiry and thoughtful discussion from the full diversity of humanity is humbling, inspiring and enlightening.
Digital math programming builds community, first and foremost, by providing opportunities for people from around the world to connect. MoMath has always strived to bring engaging math presenters to the stage, but audiences were limited to those who could make their way to Manhattan. Now, schoolchildren in India, teachers in Africa, families in Australia, college students in Europe and people in every state in our own country are able to come together to share experiences of mathematical wonder.
With the flip of a switch and the push of a button, those who have something they wish to share about math will find a global audience of enthusiastic people eager to hear from them. And those who might never have come into contact with renowned mathematicians suddenly have the opportunity, no matter where they are, to engage with some of the top minds in the field.
The online world of math also nurtures multigenerational connections. Grandparents who haven’t seen their grandkids in months as a result of the pandemic find that math presents a fun and engaging way to entice the younger generation to join them in an hour of exploration and discovery. What a delight it was to see three generations of a single family come together at a family math event! And this intergenerational human connection occurs with total strangers as well: an elderly participant, self-identified as “alone and fallen on hard times,” connected with a whip-smart young student at a recent evening gaming event, creating a truly magical moment of community.
MoMath online programming has created an ever-expanding universe of virtual learning, inviting all to enter, learn, enjoy and connect. When the pandemic gradually recedes and it is safe once again to welcome everyone back to the museum, we will keep our virtual doors propped wide open, allowing us to continue to unite people from around the world through the wonders of mathematics.