Swirling overhead, embracing visitors to the gallery, the curved structure swoops up and down, representing the airflow around the Handley Page aircraft suspended within it, reflected also in the curved patterns of the flooring. Dame Zaha Hadid trained initially in mathematics before architecture, and it is therefore highly appropriate that her practice should have transformed part of the Science Museum in London into the Winton Gallery, celebrating the contribution and importance of Mathematics throughout history in science, health, culture, commerce and society.
“When I was growing up in Iraq, math was an everyday part of life. We would play with math problems just as we would play with pens and paper to draw – math was like sketching” (Dame Zaha Hadid 2014)
Mathematics underpins almost everything that is on show across the entire Science Museum, so it must have been difficult to focus down on a selection of key exhibits to show the breadth and depth of its contribution, from the earliest times until today, and into the future, arranged around key themes.
Architecture is here, with the classical proportions for beauty recorded 2000 years ago by Vitruvius and developed in the 20th century by Le Corbusier, along with the design of elegant formal gardens, once the rules of proportion were understood, and innovative architectural designs by architects such as Dame Zaha Hadid which are underpinned by structural modelling and calculations that would have not been possible in the previous generation.
Mathematics is essential not only in the navigation of ships, aircraft and space craft but also in their design to make them more stream-lined, faster and safer and similarly not only predicts tides but has been used in the design of structures such as the Thames Tidal Barrier.
Mathematics, Computing and data analysis has come a long way from the early abacus, to Charles Babbage’s differential analyser and the first massive computers which filled vast areas of space to the modern computer chip, computer and calculator. Currency, weights and measures are mathematically-derived across the world and modern machines are used for predictions such as currency movements and the implications of Brexit, (often hopelessly wrong due to the human factor and the past not always being the best predictor of the future), for gambling with the Tote Machine and “Guinevere” from the National Lottery and for statistical analysis in health with the analysis of human conditions and the relationship of diseases to social deprivation, poverty, air pollution.
Mathematics also has a place in defence and warfare in the design of equipment and machinery and through inventions such as radar or in coding machines such as the Enigma Machine from the Second World War.
Are there any areas of modern life that do not have a relationship with mathematics? The possibilities for keeping the gallery fresh and up to date are immense. Hopefully, through the exhibition and events, children will see that mathematics is not just dry “number-crunching” but is exciting and relevant to the modern world and will be encouraged to study it further at university and beyond.