Friday, July 13, 2007

Game Friday: Math Party

Here's my secret: I love math. A lot. It's the most direct reason I ended up working in museums. In college, I taught differential equations. It was the single most failed course at my university (an engineering school). Over three years, I taught 12 sections of 30 students each--hundreds of people who had chosen to study some form of engineering. And many of them hated, or at least feared, math.

Math, like the dentist, has gotten a bad rap. You spend so much time in grade school doing computation that you wind up thinking it's all memorizing, no theorizing. It's as if in English class you only taught grammar and spelling without letting students read great books as well. So I went into science museums psyched to share the good stuff with people, to let them see that math can mean big problems and big crazy ideas.

Why the soliloquy? Because I don't think enough science museums are embracing the zany wonder of math. And this week, Casual Games featured a flash game based on the famous Four Color Map problem, and I fell into reverie. The Four Color Map is one of the simplest of great math challenges. Here's how it works:
  1. Draw a big scribble on a piece of paper, making sure the lines overlap a lot. "Close" the scribble by finishing somewhere where you attach to another line.
  2. Take out four crayons. The goal is to color in all the little closed areas made by your scribble. The only rule you must follow is that no two adjacent areas that share a boundary (a line, not a point) can have the same color. Good luck!
The cool thing about the Four Color Map problem is that until 1976, no one could prove that EVERY possible map could be colored with only four colors. And to this day, no one has proven it without a computer checking lots of configurations, that is, elegantly.

There are lots of games to play with the Four Color Map theorem. You can draw a scribble and do a two-colored competition with a friend to see who can fill in the most areas (you get one color, they get another, follow the map rules and alternate until one player can't go anymore). You can download this set of puzzles (PC-only, so I haven't vetted) and try to color them with four colors. You can play the flash game, which has a slightly different premise related to area covered (check out the comments for some lively math debate). Or, you can do what I used to do at a children's museum: put out a table, some crayons, and a sign that says STUMP THE MATHEMATICIAN and let people try to invent their own five color
maps. They'll never do it... but it seems so possible! And everyone's minds will be stretched trying to figure out the rules that dictate what kinds of shapes need how many colors.

So many demonstrations and experiments at science museums are about bringing energy, depth, and fun to a subject that many students find dull in school. I want to see more museums hitting up infinity, playing with knots, making mobius strips, and generally doing the same for math.

And if you want a REAL challenge, try
to fill in this map with only four colors. Yes, it is doable... though it was the crux of a 1976 April Fool's Day math hoax.

Sigh. Math humor.

4 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Damn it -- there's goes my afternoon! Thanks a lot, Simon!


Mr. Lucchese said...

There absolutely needs to be a math museum. It should start with Paleolithic carvings in bone or knotted ropes and then move through Egypt, Greece, Rome with a parallel path through China, India, and the Muslim Empire. They could join at the Renaissance and then continue through the Enlightenment...oh my gosh, I've gone crazy. But man, would I love that museum.

Anonymous said...

Ah! Been at you blog a while now. This brings back memories from college. Graph theory? I vaguely recall a five colour theorem - something on these lines.

Lot wiki-ing to do now - to refresh memory :)

Nina Simon said...

Wow! I had no idea there were so many other closet math obsessives out there...

I have a friend who was part of a "punk math" group that would do outreach programming in mall food courts. They had all kinds of fun mats with different maps, bridge problems, etc., and they did lots of lively statistics games with the food on the tables. I agree that there's definitely enough good, interactive content out there to fill a whole math place.

But the stigmas are huge. I remember when the exhibit Calculus was being designed and there was big debate about how visitors would react to that title. But if the Museum of Dentistry can thrive, I can't think of a good reason the Museum of Math could not.