Numbers in Nature: Explore the links at the Museum of Science and Industry

By Michaela Meaney

Have you ever noticed the spiral pattern shared by a seahorse’s tail and a snail’s shell? Or that the branches on a tree look just like the bronchioles in your lungs? Or why your arms, when spread out side to side, measure nearly the same length as your height?

These aren’t coincidences. They deliver a series of mathematical equations connecting nature and our lives. The Museum of Science and Industry’s new permanent exhibit, Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze, gives a new way to look at the world by identifying the connections all around us.

“The same patterns that exist in nature also exist in our bodies,” said John Beckman, the museum’s director of exhibit design and development. “I think it’s really cool to discover there’s all this math around you every day.”

RECURRING PATTERNS

The deep blue lighting of the exhibit sets the mood. The dark walls shimmer with vibrant holograms, introducing the idea of recurring patterns found throughout nature and the universe. What looks like an image of a normal sunflower from one angle, changes to reveal an overlay of spirals on the flower’s seeds to help you identify a systematic pattern.

Another hologram brings to life the Parthenon in Athens as we all recognize it from one side. Yet looking at it from another perspective allows viewers to see the building with a series of lines and dashes, zeroing in on the landmark’s deliberate design. Even the lighting fixture above these holograms has a giraffe’s skin-like pattern to get you thinking about the reasons for the patterns surrounding you. But what do they all mean?

Continue through the exhibit and you arrive at a video that gives more hints of the recurring mathematical patterns found throughout our world. You hear ambient music and words like “Voronoi patterns,” and “golden ratio,” and how the beat of a drum is similar to the sound of a wave. “Patterns and shapes spark our curiosity and engage our senses,” explains the exhibit’s text. And the video does just that. You may be curious to know just what these things mean and why so many similar patterns exist in our world, but that is not explained in detail just yet. Like most things you want in life, you have to work for them.

“Everything we do here is storytelling,” said Beckman. “So we’re leading you in little by little.”

And where exactly are you being led? To a mirror maze.

MIRROR MAZE

“Prepare to immerse yourself in a kaleidoscope of patterns,” reads the sign right before you enter the maze. No better word exists than “kaleidoscope” to truly imagine what this maze is like.

You may struggle to differentiate between real images and reflections in the maze. Mirrors well over 8 feet high create the walls, with edges decorated by white wooden trees. The systematic details from the beginning of the exhibit continue into the maze, as the floor is defined by equilateral triangles sectioned off by colorful LED lights. Where there is lighting, it’s minimal and in dark hues of rainbow colors.

“The maze was awesome,” said Gary Luz of Round Lake Park, who has been visiting the museum for over 40 years. “I was always interested in Escher paintings, and that was like walking through one of those paintings.”

You can’t really get lost. “There are a few Easter eggs that are hidden throughout,” said Renee Mailhiot, museum public relations coordinator. Those “eggs” are motion sensor-activated, so if you happen to run into a wall something may pop up inside the mirror. One example just happens to be a reproduction of “Circle Limit I,” by surreal artist M.C. Escher. Below the reproduction is an explanation of tessellation, or the way of arranging shapes in a mosaic pattern, without gaps or spaces.

“I really don’t think anyone has tried to use a mirror maze in this way,” said Olivia Castellini, senior exhibit developer at the museum. Castellini described the maze as a platform for an educational experience, and that the math and science behind it sets it apart from a typical cornfield maze.

MORE ANSWERS

The end of the maze arrives at the exhibit’s final piece, the most descriptive and interactive part.

You can step in front of a mirror that uses interactive technology to measure your height and wingspan. Signs nearby explain the principle of the golden ratio, equaling approximately 1.618, or when the ratio of two numbers is the same or close to their sum divided by the larger number.

The concept of fractal patterns, or mathematically repeating sets, is also explained interactively. You can create 3-D mountains using one of the monitors by adjusting the number of divisions, the texture and the height of your mountain range.

“I like the high-tech aspect because it’s interactive,” said Mandy Bauer, a museum visitor from Atlanta.

NOT YOUR TYPICAL MATH LESSON

The museum’s new exhibit is not meant to be an explicit math lesson, but to help build awareness and recognize the numbers around you, according to Castellini.

“Hopefully people come out of Numbers in Nature to literally see the world in a new way,” she said. Castellini explained how many people feel intimidated by math but don’t realize they use it everyday. “You sing in the shower and you’re using it,” she said, giving repetition, rhythm and frequencies as aspects in both math and music.

Numbers in Nature does not teach equations but a new way to discover the world around us. The exhibit achieves this through its numerous visual comparisons and interactive features.

“It’s like every trip to the farmers market or to your backyard is going to be mind-blowing,” Beckman said.

CAPTIONS:
Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze takes you on a tour of recurring patterns in nature through interactive installations. The news permanent exhibit opened this week at the Museum of Science and Industry.

The exhibit’s main feature is a self-guided, 1,800-square-foot mirror maze, tying together the concepts of recurring patterns and symmetry. 

Using one of the exhibit’s interactive monitors, Gary Luz of Round Lake Park, creates a 3-D mountain range with his father, Romeo. “I like the interactive and actually creating something that mimics nature,” Luz said.

Photos by Michaela Meaney/MEDILL