As sponsors of the Science Museum in London, ReAgent is fortunate to receive regular invitations to a variety of exhibition launches. Recently we attended the opening ceremony of a new permanent display mathematics gallery named Mathematics: The Winton Gallery designed by world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects.
Curated by David Rooney, the exhibition explores the history of mathematics over the last 400 years by means of a wide range of artefacts and mathematical instruments. The items on display come from many diverse disciplines including aircraft, gambling and architecture and show how mathematical practice is woven throughout our daily lives in the modern world.
An introduction and welcome from Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum was followed by a performance of a specially commissioned piece of music in collaboration with the Royal College of Music, after which we were free to explore.
The gallery is a visually stunning space. Inspired by aeronautical engineering and illuminated in pinks, blues and lilacs, it draws the visitor in and lends a dramatic backdrop to the exhibits. Its structure is beautiful and the lighting magnificent yet it does not overpower or take anything away from the items on display.
At the centre of the gallery, suspended from the ceiling, hangs ‘Gugnunc’ an experimental bi-plane commissioned in 1929 and at the heart of aviation research bringing together mathematics and engineering.
This is a very spacious gallery, easily accommodating some hundreds of people. I was pleased to see plenty of discreet seating for those who wanted to ponder the exhibits which are divided into zoned areas with themes such as Navigation, Money and Engineering.
As someone who enjoys a day ‘at the races’, I was amazed to discover an exhibit that explained the meaning of the word ‘tote’. Forming part of a huge electromechanical machine from Wembley Greyhound Stadium, the ‘Totaliser Machine’ (or tote, for short) calculated the odds for each dog in real time as gamblers placed their bets. The information was displayed on a giant screen.
Tote betting was different to track-side betting where bookmakers set their own odds. With the tote, everyone paid into a single pool, winners resulting from a mathematical calculation on the bets placed on each dog. This meant that those wishing to place a bet did not need to check with each bookmaker to find the best odds although in my experience many people still do!
Pension Slide Rule
Another exhibit is a pension slide rule which was used in government offices up until the 1940’s. This complex piece of equipment was invented by John Hannyngton, a prominent life insurance and pensions administrator (or actuary) working for the British government in India from the 1850’s. This early form of calculating machinery saved many man-hours and relieved actuaries of tedious work.
Mathematics was an essential tool in solving the 17th and 18th century problems of navigation, known as the longitude problem. Thousands of lives and millions of tonnes of cargoes were lost as ships were wrecked or ran out of supplies because of navigational errors. One solution to this difficulty was to follow the position of the Moon and stars, a technique known as lunar distances.
Other artefacts include room-sized 1960/70’s computers, a copy of Sir Isaac Newton’s ‘The Method of Fluxions and Infinite Series’ written in 1736 and a Wisard pattern-recognition machine from 1981. There is even ‘Guinevere’ the first weekly draw machine for the National Lottery.
Dame Zaha Hadid died in March 2016 and the gallery provides the Science Museum’s lasting tribute to this visionary architect.
Further information about this and other exhibitions at the Science Museum can be found on their website at – www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/visitmuseum/plan_your_visit/exhibitions/mathematics