Museum of Science and Industry combines math and nature in new exhibit ‘Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze’

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In “Numbers in Nature,” guests can navigate a seemingly infinite 1,800-square-foot mirror maze, which features a pattern of repeating triangles. (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry Chicago)

In “Numbers in Nature,” guests can navigate a seemingly infinite 1,800-square-foot mirror maze, which features a pattern of repeating triangles. (J.B. Spector / Museum of Science and Industry Chicago)

The Museum of Science and Industry’s newest permanent exhibit, “Numbers in Nature: A Mirror Maze,” seems to answer the question every elementary school math teacher hates most: “When will I use this?”

The exhibit, which opened last Wednesday, attempts to engage people with math observable in nature. Its centerpiece features an 1,800-square-foot funhouse-style mirror maze.

“The museum is thrilled to open an exhibit that illuminates mathematics and numbers in a fun, interactive way,” Kurt Haunfelner, vice president of exhibits and collections at the Museum of Science and Industry, said. “By showcasing that fascinating numerical patterns are all around us, we hope kids and adults will become inspired to discover more about how math has a strong and important presence in our daily lives.”

MSI links mathematical patterns to everyday life, the human body, and the arts.

Upon entering, viewers are greeted by a wraparound screen that spans half of a large oval room, looping a video about parallels between human constructions and natural patterns, like spirals in the head of a sunflower.

The video makes connections between architecture and nature in surprising ways. Museum-goers then enter a small area with a stylized white plant structure, around which there are various touch screens where people can play games to engage with the golden ratio, spirals, Voronoi patterns, and fractal branching.

The main draw of the exhibit is the mirror maze. Though the concept is familiar, this maze is far more elaborate than its carnival-style counterparts. Hallways of crystal-clear diagonally placed mirrors serve to disorient, while the path splits into multiple dead-end alcoves and a secret interior room with additional puzzles.

The maze is lit from the ground with effervescent blue light bulbs. The objective of the installation is to allow guests to immerse themselves in its repetition, symmetry and tessellation, which focuses on shapes. Children traversed the maze giggling and screaming, while adults navigated cautiously.

Emerging from the maze, museum guests enter a second room of interactive displays.  Included are motion sensor explorations of different patterns, mirrors to observe patterns of symmetry and the golden mean in guests’ faces and bodies, a table where they can arrange musical note blocks and hear their composition, and displayed ant hill and beehive formations.

Museum guests can spin a wheel to match architectural landmarks from a multitude of cultures with their geometric counterparts. In another touchscreen game, you create your own fractals. The mathematical patterns in the natural world become evident through a range of interactive mediums, engaging people of all different learning styles.

The MSI clearly made it its mission to get young people excited about math and numbers through a multimedia presentation, making use of popular gaming technology and fun, group-based activities. The exhibit is part of a permanent collection, and entrance is included in the museum fee.