All 2015 Events

View all events that took place at the inaugural National Math Festival in April 2015.

Geometric Patterns in Islamic Art

Carol Bier

From the Alhambra in Spain to the Taj Mahal in India and beyond, geometric patterns are a key component in arts of the Islamic world from the seventh century to the present. In this illustrated lecture we will explore together architecture and ornament to see how mathematical aspects of Islamic art contribute to a beauty of form, structure, and pattern. Looking at the symmetry of patterns in the plane, we will consider tessellations at the Alhambra palace that inspired M. C. Escher. Relationships between number, shape, and the nature of space will become apparent as we look at luxurious silk textiles, wood inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and illuminated manuscripts, all of which, along with architecture, share in the resplendent use of geometry in their designs.

Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant

Black Girls CODE has set out to prove to the world that girls of every color have the skills to become the programmers of tomorrow. Join Smithsonian Ingenuity award winner and Black Girls CODE founder Kimberly Bryant as she works to “create a new age of women of color in technology.”

Design a Kolam

Shanthi Chandrasekar

Discover the beautiful curved loops and geometric symmetry of kolam, a South Indian style of painting using rice flour. Watch a professional artist create a kolam and explain its historical and mathematical importance. Then, experiment making your own using popular motifs such as flowers and a variety of animals.

Patterns + Women = Figures in Mathematics

Dr. Alissa Crans

How many mathematicians can you name?  How many female mathematicians were on your list?  Come be introduced to Grace Chisholm Young, a prominent female mathematician known for the mathematics textbooks for children she co-authored with her husband. Together, we’ll discover an equation in their book about geometry, known as “Euler’s Formula,” that relates the number of vertices, edges, and faces of a given polyhedron. Note: This workshop is for middle and high school girls and their accompanying adults.

A Surreptitious Sequence: The Catalan Numbers

Dr. Alissa Crans

Many of us are familiar with famous sequences of numbers such as the odd numbers 1, 3, 5, 7, …, perfect squares 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, …, Fibonacci sequence 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, … ,or the triangular numbers 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, … But what about the sequence 1, 1, 2, 5, 14, …? First described by Euler in the 1700s and made famous by Belgian mathematician Eugène Catalan 100 years later, these “Catalan numbers” take on a variety of different guises as they provide the solution to numerous problems throughout mathematics.

Modeling the Melt: What Math Tells Us about the Disappearing Polar Ice Caps

Dr. Kenneth Golden

The precipitous loss of Arctic sea ice has far outpaced expert predictions. Come along with Ken Golden, the Indiana Jones of mathematics, as he explores the mathematical underpinnings of this mystery and takes us (via video) on an Antarctic expedition.

How Not to Be Wrong

Dr. Jordan Ellenberg

The math we learn in school can seem like a dull set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. Join writer and mathematician Dr. Jordan Ellenberg as he explains just how wrong this view is: Math touches everything we do, allowing us to see the hidden structures beneath the messy and chaotic surface of our daily lives. Ellenberg’s investigations include baseball, Reaganomics, daring lottery schemes, Voltaire, the replicability crisis in psychology, Italian Renaissance painting, artificial languages, the development of non-Euclidean geometry, the coming obesity apocalypse, Antonin Scalia’s views on crime and punishment, the psychology of slime molds, packing 24-dimensional spheres, what Facebook can and can’t figure out about you, the invention of calculus, and the existence of God. And that’s just for starters.

A Voyage That Will Forever Change Your Perspective of Home

Dr. Jeff Goldstein

It’s a big, often intimidating universe out there. How do we even begin to fathom objects and distances that dwarf anything we’ve ever experienced? Yet Earth’s place in space is knowable. The secret is placing the universe in a context that is familiar, by using rulers, clocks, and models – all powered by the language of nature: mathematics. You’re invited to the story of our existence —a race of explorers, 7 billion tiny souls strong. It is a story that humbles us, and brings a sense of humility to our lives. It is a voyage that will forever change your perspective of home. Take this magical journey from Spaceship Earth to points unknown.

Archimedes: Mathematical Superhero of the Ancient World

Dr. Matthew Kahle

Archimedes was a truly remarkable physicist, engineer, inventor, and astronomer. He built a heat ray which could burn the sails of attacking ships, designed machines to predict the motions of the planets and eclipses, and estimated the number of grains of sand it would take to fill the universe. But the accomplishment of which he was most proud was a mathematical insight –– computing a formula for the volume and surface area of sphere, anticipating calculus by thousands of years. We’ll discuss a few of his most amazing inventions and insights.

Rubik’s Cube and Other Permutation Puzzles

Dr. Matthew Kahle

Permutation puzzles in one form or another have been around for at least 140 years. The Rubik’s cube is perhaps the most popular permutation puzzle of all time. These puzzles have a visceral appeal, and they have provoked many fascinating new mathematical questions. Over 30 years after the initial Rubik’s cube craze, people are still discovering new things—last year for example, Tomas Rokicki and Morley Davidson spectacularly proved that “God’s number” for the Rubik’s cube is 26, meaning that every cube, no matter how scrambled, can be solved in at most 26 moves.

Math is Cool!

Dr. George Hart

Geometric sculptures, mathematical puzzles, insightful videos, hands-on workshop activities, and the National Museum of Mathematics in New York City are all a means to demonstrate that math is a living, creative, joyful subject – i.e., that Math is Cool! Hart will present and discuss a variety of these works from his creative output, and show you some giant mathematical artworks, 3D printed mathematical models, and original workshop projects.

Very Small Sea Creatures

Dr. Mimi Koehl

When tiny sea creatures swim, they are swept around by the turbulent water currents and waves around them. We have been using a combination of measurements in the ocean, laboratory experiments, and mathematical modeling to figure out how these microscopic organisms manage to get where they need to go in such messy water flow.

The Math Behind Minecraft

Joel Levin

Video games in the classroom? Certainly! Math and science teachers are using Minecraft to build worlds, solve problems, and have fun with their students. Join “The Minecraft Teacher” as he takes kids and adults on a guided tour of the Edu version of the game, showing off past problems and solving a few together on the spot.

Cosmic Shadows and the Fifth Dimension

Dr. Arlie Petters

Shadow patterns are all around us. We drive through them on the way to work and swim among them in pools. Similar patterns are also cast throughout the universe by the gravitational fields of matter and black holes. This talk unveils some of the cosmic and mathematical secrets of these mysterious and beautiful patterns. Interestingly, the shadow patterns cast by microscopic black holes touch on a rather deep question. Is there a fifth dimension? In other words, is there an extra dimension of physical space beyond length, width, and height? If so, how would we know it is there? If true, this provocative idea would profoundly impact our perception of the natural world, analogous to how we no longer think of the earth as flat.

The Math and Science of Getting in Sync

Dr. Steven Strogatz

Every night along the tidal rivers of Malaysia, thousands of male fireflies congregate in the mangrove trees and flash on and off in silent, hypnotic unison. This display extends for miles along the river and occurs spontaneously; it does not require any leader or cue from the environment. Similar feats of synchronization occur throughout the natural world, and in our own bodies. This lecture will provide an introduction to the simplest mathematical model of collective synchronization. To this end, come enjoy amazing videos of synchronous fireflies and London’s wobbly Millennium Bridge, among others.

Doing Math in Public

Dr. Steven Strogatz

In the spring of 2010, Steven Strogatz wrote a 15-part series on the elements of math for the New York Times. To his surprise — and his editor’s — each piece climbed the most emailed list and elicited hundreds of appreciative comments. In this talk Steve will describe his adventures in bringing math to the masses, and will share the lessons he learned about what works… and what doesn’t.

Math at Top Speed

Dr. Richard Tapia

Myth and Facts about Drag Racing: Calculus Edition! Starting with a bit of history, we’ll then turn to identifying elementary mathematical frameworks to study popular drag racing beliefs. Dr. Tapia will explain why dragster acceleration is greater than the acceleration due to gravity, an age-old inconsistency. Note: You’ll want to have studied calculus to appreciate this talk!

Using Math to Construct a Psychedelic Video of My 1970 Chevelle Show Car

Dr. Richard Tapia

“Heavy Metal” is a high-energy documentary video about a car of the same name, a 1970 Chevelle Malibu SS. Immerse yourself in the world of muscle cars, heavy metal music, and the social rebellion of the late 1960s and early ’70s, set to the music of Black Sabbath. Psychedelic video images are constructed entirely using mathematics, demonstrating that mathematics can take us places physics cannot.

The Fair Lane Assignment Problem in BMX Bicycle Racing

Dr. Richard Tapia

Can math help us find a fairer way to assign lanes? In this talk, the speaker uses several lively videos to identify and illustrate what he calls the Curse of Lane 8 or The Fair Lane Assignment Problem in BMX bicycle-racing. Dr. Tapia uses his mathematical training to formulate the query as a mathematical problem and together with Rice University students, solves it with a flourish.

Knots and DNA

Dr. Mariel Vazquez

“The best thing about being a scientist is the fun you have. Math is fun. I use math and computers to tackle scientific problems dealing with DNA. In my work I get to draw a lot of pictures. I play with rope and with ribbons,” says Dr. Mariel Vazquez. Most cells in your body have two meters of DNA in them. DNA molecules inside a confined environment such as the cell nucleus, just like your headphones in your backpack, tend to intertwine and tie knots. Hear about how these knots present a “packing problem,” and the mathematical and computational tools used to tackle it.

Who Wants to Be a Mathematician?

American Mathematical Society (AMS)

In the American Mathematical Society contest "Who Wants to Be a Mathematician", area high school students will compete by answering multiple choice mathematics questions in a competitive and entertaining quiz show format. The top prize is $3,000!

Mathematical Balloon Twisting

Bridges Organization

Balloon twisting is the art of sculpting figures out of balloons. While the art is typically celebrated by children at birthday parties or carnivals, it also has much to offer the mathematical enthusiast. In this workshop, participants will produce balloon renditions of several interesting mathematical structures. Along the way, participants will gain the frolicsome skill of balloon twisting – a skill that can be shared and enjoyed with other childlike spirits throughout the rest of one’s life.

Geometric Origami

Bridges Organization

In this building workshop, we are making Platonic solids: a dodecahedron and an icosahedron, decorated with geometric patterns. The dodecahedron has 12 faces and 20 vertices, while the icosahedron has 20 faces and 12 vertices! You will also assemble a colorful, mathematical origami octahedron. These beautiful objects can become necklaces to be worn and taken home.

MoSAIC Art Exhibition

Bridges Organization

The MoSAIC Art Exhibition consists of 45 works of mathematically inspired fine art traveling to a half a dozen venues around the US in 2014-2015. Curated by George Hart, the artworks were selected to show a wide range of media and mathematical ideas. Don’t miss this chance to see prints, sculpture, fiber arts, 3D prints, carved stone, clothing, and ceramics by some of the most creative math-inspired artists in the world.

Celebration of Mind: Mathematical Games, Magic, & Puzzles

Elwyn & Jennifer Berlekamp Foundation

Come experience the many facets of Celebration of Mind! Cut, color, fold, and glue mathematical illusions, discover the many faces of a flexagon, and construct surprising shapes out of mobius strips. Play with hands-on puzzles and solve problems created by the Julia Robinson Math Festival. Come see Colm Mulcahy, professor of mathematics at Spelman College, demonstrate classic mathematical magic principles with a deck of cards, as popularized by Martin Gardner’s writings. It’s truly amazing how mathematics, not sleight of hand, makes possible magical miracles involving prediction and mind reading. Engage in some interesting board games and learn some of the mathematics which underlies their strategies. One of these games is Amazons, in which each of two players controls several pieces. Each Amazon moves around the board like a chess queen and then shoots an arrow which destroys the square on which it lands. The winner is the player whose opponent is first unable to move.
Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival will present a wide range of intriguing problems, puzzles, and games to share the joy of math with students of all ages. Participants can select a problem they find interesting, and work together with their friends or helpful adults to discover a solution — or unexpected results. Younger kids may find themselves particularly drawn to such hands-on activities as Space Chips and ThinkFun’s Chocolate Fix, while older students will appreciate the depth and complexity of problems like Difference Engine and Building Blocks.

Early Math Learning with Technology: Gracie & Friends Apps and Activities

First 8 Studios at WGBH

WGBH Educational Foundation has pioneered children’s educational media for decades. First 8 Studios at WGBH is dedicated to carrying this pioneering spirit into the digital, mobile world. First 8 Studios builds and researches new learning experiences for children from birth through age 8, their parents, and their teachers.

Cash Prizes for Everyone!

Guerilla Science

"Cash prizes for Everyone!" is an interactive game-show that offers the audience a chance to win big! In front of a large crowd, competitors (drawn randomly from the audience) will be invited to compete against a performing mathematician in one of a number of solved games. Huge prizes offered to anyone who can beat the house!

Oobleck Olympics

Guerilla Science

Oobleck Olympics is a hands-on ‘obstacle’ course where contestants slug it out over a range of mathletic hurdles. Small teams will walk, jump, and skip through a (non-Newtonian) water challenge; compete in a honey dipper egg-and-spoon style race; and shoot smoke rings like William Tell! Competitors will need to mathematically manipulate the forces of nature to win.

Escape from DC

Guerilla Science

Escape from DC is a roving troupe of topological Houdinis, imprisoned in straight jackets, chains and handcuffs. Passers-by will be called on to help free the professional contortionists using mathematical subterfuge. The best case is where no bonds or handcuffs need be broken.

Math on the National Mall: Self-Guided Tour

Mathematical Association of America (MAA)

Self-Directed Tour — The world around us is rich with mathematical wonder. As we hurry along busy streets, gaze at buildings and other structures, visit art galleries and museums, or just wander across fields, we can catch glimpses of triangles and trapezoids, knots and Mobius strips, fractals and pyramids, and much, much more. Join us for a mathematical treasure hunt among the monuments, museums, and fields at the heart of the nation’s capital. (Mathematical “roadmap” provided.)

Mathical Book Signing

Mathical: Books for Kids from Tots to Teens

Come meet some of the authors of the winning titles of Mathical: Books for Kids from Tots to Teens. This new book prize, recognizing the most inspiring math-related literature for youth of all ages, is presented by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC). The winning titles will be announced at And yes — the authors will be happy to autograph!

Counting Cube Colorings

A Math Circle Demonstration!

National Association of Math Circles (NAMC)

How many different ways are there to label the vertices (corners) of a cube with either a red or a black sticker so that no two adjacent vertices have the same color? While searching for a solution to this question, we investigate repeating mathematical patterns known as symmetries. In mathematics, we use symmetries to transform simple figures, and look for patterns in the effects. These lead to “symmetry groups” which classify the symmetries of different mathematical objects such as polygons (e.g., squares, pentagons,) and polyhedra (e.g, cubes, pyramids).

This session will demonstrate a Math Students’ Circle (, a unique form of outreach in which mathematics professionals share their passion for mathematics with K-12 students. These programs are part of a growing national trend in outreach that provide participants the opportunity to explore, create, and communicate substantive mathematics. In addition, students increase their problem-solving skills and perhaps most importantly, grow their enjoyment of mathematics. In this session you will have the chance to engage with the problems as well as to ask questions about the demonstration session and about Math Students’ Circles.

Tiling, Counting, and Recursion

A Math Circle Demonstration!

National Association of Math Circles (NAMC)

How many ways are there to completely cover a chess board with dominoes? What about a rectangular grid? Mathematicians call covering an entire space with repetitions of a geometric shape —without gaps or overlaps—mathematical tiling. In this session we explore mathematical tiling using problem-solving strategies, discover familiar patterns in a new setting, and learn a bit about mathematics problems where the solution depends on solutions to smaller, generally simpler, instances of the same problem (formally called recursion).

This session will demonstrate a Math Students’ Circle (, a unique form of outreach in which mathematics professionals share their passion for mathematics with K-12 students. These programs are part of a growing national trend in outreach that provide participants the opportunity to explore, create, and communicate substantive mathematics. In addition, students increase their problem-solving skills and perhaps most importantly, grow their enjoyment of mathematics. In this session you will have the chance to engage with the problems as well as to ask questions about the demonstration session and about Math Students’ Circles.

Telescope Viewing

National Air and Space Museum

Come by the Phoebe Waterman Haas Public Observatory to look through our telescopes and discover the wonders of math in the universe! Take a safe look at the Sun. Measure scale and proportion of sunspots and the Sun. Learn how to calculate the magnification of a telescope. Perhaps we’ll even look for the Moon or Venus as well.

Space Racers

National Air and Space Museum

Enjoy an episode of the new children’s show, Space Racers (which had script review input from both NASA and the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum), along with a live-action “interstitial” recorded at the museum.

Flights of Fancy Story Time

National Air and Space Museum

“Hare and Tortoise Race to the Moon.” Join us for a story and a hands-on activity.

Discovery Stations

National Air and Space Museum

A number of staffed interactive Discovery Stations will be available throughout the National Air and Space Museum. You can look forward to such topics as: Exoplanets: Planets Orbiting a Star Other than Our Sun; Decoding Starlight: Using the “Color Fingerprint” of a Star’s Spectrum to Determine Its Composition; Black Holes: Gravity So Strong Not Even Light Can Escape!; What is a Wing?: Fundamentals of Aerodynamics; Cosmic Survey: The Universe is a Place Filled with an Interesting Variety of Objects; Telescope Power! How Telescopes Work; Kite to Flight: A History of Humans’ Learning to Fly; Living and Working in Space: Not the Normal 9-5!; Forces of Flight: Aerodynamics of Controlled Flight; Space Station Sensation: Our Base in Space.

Science Snippets: Wind Tunnel

National Air and Space Museum

What happens when you place different objects into the wind? Test out materials in our wind tunnel.

What’s in Your Gourd?

Using Gourds to Teach Math: Patterns, Shapes, Sizes and Forms!

National Museum of African Art

Drawing on patterns, shapes, sizes, and forms as inspiration from the many gourds on view in the museum’s Conversations exhibition, children will create their own gourd design to take home and frame. Decide what you would carry inside! Gourds have been extraordinarily useful—when dried, they have had numerous uses throughout history: as containers, tools, musical instruments, medicine containers, objects of art, even decorative birdhouses! The museum’s collection has many stories to tell about Africa’s engagement with math via the arts.

Maya Math Activity

National Museum of the American Indian

The ancient Maya used mathematics to support many activities in their daily lives, from market transactions to predicting eclipses. Maya mathematics is vigesimal, which means that instead of counting by tens, Maya math counts by twenties. This system allows very large numbers to be written and makes complex math possible. Maya math is easy, but you need to learn the rules. The Maya used only three symbols to represent all numbers. These symbols are represented by beans, sticks, and shells. Now that you know something about Maya math, do you think you are ready to try to add and subtract, and if you are brave, to multiply using Maya math?

MoMath’s Math Midway!

National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath)

Celebrate the wonders of mathematics at the Math Midway! Presented by the National Museum of Mathematics (MoMath), this nationally acclaimed exhibition offers more than 20 interactive exhibits that allow you to step into the world of pattern, shape and number, and to explore the wonderful world of mathematics. From the Square-Wheeled Tricycle to the Ring of Fire, there’s something for everyone!

Diamond or Deception?

National Museum of Natural History

Can you tell the difference between diamond and quartz? Uncut, they may look similar, but their densities don’t lie. Test your calculations to find the real diamond.

Bones: A Forensic Math Mystery

National Museum of Natural History

A group of hikers stumbles across what looks like human remains. Have they found a crime scene or could there be another explanation? During this ongoing volunteer-led activity in the Barbara and Craig Barrett Lab, visitors examine real human bones, objects, and artifacts, and take measurements using forensic tools to determine age, sex, time since death, and maybe even cause of death.

Expert is In: The Math Behind Volcanic Eruptions

National Museum of Natural History

Geologist/Volcanologist Ben Andrews examines pyroclastic flows—hot, destructive clouds of volcanic ash that travel across the landscape at high speed. Inside his lab, he uses experiments to better understand what controls how far, how fast, and where these flows will travel.

Expert is In: New Seaweed, New Homes?

National Museum of Natural History

Have you ever wondered what lives on seaweed? An invasive seaweed, native to Japan, now lives in the United States. 2015 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) John A. Knauss Marine Policy Fellow Courtney Gerstenmaier counted the animals on a South Carolina mudflat that made this seaweed its home. These animals included herbivores (plant eaters), carnivores (meat eaters), omnivores (plant and meat eaters), and detrivores (decomoposing tissue eaters). Come and find out how the crabs, worms, and snails survived and thrived in changing conditions – and how an ecologist uses mathematics in her work (hint: think many years of counting animals, eggs, and bacteria with a Q-tip on seaweed!).

Real Science, Real Data, You: Scientific Exploration with NOVA Labs Games


Come take part in real-world investigations by visualizing, analyzing, and playing with the same data that scientists use. NOVA Labs is a free digital platform where teens can actively praticipate in the scientific process, from predicting solar storms and designing renewable energy systems to tracking cloud movements and learning cybersecurity strategies.

Sort, Organize, Count, Categorize: Collect!

Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center

Drawing on inspiration from the great collections of the Smithsonian Institution, children will create and display a collection of their own. As children sort, organize, count and categorize, parents will learn how the process of collecting supports the development of early math skills.

Math in the Garden

Build Your Own Parterre

Smithsonian Gardens

What is a parterre? Join us for an interactive Smithsonian-led session intended to teach about these formal gardens, to encourage comparative thinking and creativity, and to reinforce spatial awareness by creating symmetrical designs.

Math in the Garden: Measuring Water Drip by Drip

Smithsonian Gardens

Smithsonian Gardens uses “Smart” irrigation to keep the landscape happy and healthy. Gone are the days of the simple hose and sprinkler. Now it’s all about computers, precision parts and big words like “evapotranspiration.” See how our weather station and central control system use factors in nature and the landscape to calculate our irrigation needs each and every day.

Clean Math

Smithsonian Office of Facilities Management and Reliability

Join members of the Smithsonian’s Facilities staff to learn more about the math behind healthier chemicals used to clean the museums (think:dilution ratios and mixtures); the math behind divvying up tasks among work teams, based on building layouts, square footage, and scheduling needs; and the math behind supply chains: how much toilet paper should we plan to order for an entire year (hint: recommended use per person x number of uses per day x visitor flow = ?). How many rolls, how many cases per year?

Comfortable Math, Comfortable Spaces

Smithsonian Office of Facilities Management and Reliability

Psychrometry is the science behind heating, cooling, and regulation of humidity in buildings. Learn about relative air temperatures, temperature and humidity zones, and generally how Smithsonian Facilities staff keep the buildings safe and comfortable for both people and collections.

Math of Built Structures

Smithsonian Office of Facilities Management and Reliability

Come build a masonry wall, or measure the pitch of a roof truss. How do engineers make sure the wall will stand firmly and safely? How do they measure the way a roof will handle wind and weight (such as accumulated snowfall)? Join these hands-on activities to find the answers to these and other questions about the built environment at the Smithsonian.

The Hyperbolic Star


A local team will construct a beautiful and mathematically meaningful structure: a stellated icosahedron with embedded hyperbolic surfaces. Built with Zometool components, the finished piece will be close to 6 feet in diameter. The construction will take approximately 4 hours. Come cheer on the team and try your hand at building your own Zometool creations!

Expert is In: Skeleton in Motion

National Museum of Natural History

Talk with Peter Buck Postdoctoral Fellow Habiba Chirchir about her fascinating research into the trabecular bone: the meshy bone network inside joints that helps absorb stresses in mammals. How has the skeletal anatomy of mammals changed over time? Using calipers to take measurements, Dr. Chirichir has examined hip joints, lower limbs, and knees, as well as hand and wrist joints to understand how being bipedal has required adaptation. See CAT scans of an ape, cheetah, leopard, mountain lion, and orangutan.

Solar System Tour with Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein

Dr. Jeff Goldstein

Guided Tour — How big is the Solar System, really? How small are you by comparison? Voyage is a one to 10-billion scale model of our Solar System — spanning 2,000 feet from the National Air and Space Museum (where you’ll find the Sun) to the Smithsonian Castle (where you’ll find Pluto). Join us for a guided tour of the installation.