Using math in the real world adds up to a cool job


At the MathAlive! exhibition, boys compete in a virtual snowboard race by twisting their bodies to angle their boards to fly over obstacles. Knowing geometry can help them turn the board without falling. . (OSCAR WILLIAMS/MATHALIVE!)
April 17, 2012

What do astronauts, musicians and snowboarders have in common? They all use math to do their jobs. At MathAlive!, a new exhibition at the Smithsonian, you can experience math in action as you explore the 40 stations in a dark room. The dozens of television screens and ringing electronic sounds make it feel as though you’re in a big video game.

You might be surprised to discover that math is used in a lot of cool professions. Throughout the exhibition, you can read the stories of people who used their love of math in unusual ways.

Here are a few of our favorite stations:

Snowboard down a mountain

Step onto one of the three snowboards in front of your virtual (that means computerized) mountain. Can you use geometry (the study of lines and angles) to figure out how to get down the mountain without falling? Be careful not to go straight down the slope: You could build up too much speed and crash!

Be a video game designer

Have you ever wondered how Nathan Drake from “Uncharted” walks confidently through the Arabian desert? It’s a math skill called mapping. Computer designers use it to make objects move left and right, up and down, and forward and back. (That’s called moving along the x, y and z axes). Your task will be to use mapping to move a rickshaw in a video game.


Kids move a camera along a system of coordinates in a 3-D model of the international space station. (OSCAR WILLIAMS/MATHALIVE!)
Work in space

Move the robotic arm outside your spacecraft to three positions in three minutes. The computer screen in front of you will guide you. If the arm is at a -7 position and it needs to get to 0, how far should you move it, and in what direction?

At the station behind you, your mission is to move a Mars rover, which is like a little car that goes around the red planet collecting information. Enter the number of spaces you want it to move. Then rotate it 90, 180, 270 or 360 degrees to avoid the rocks. You don’t want to get in trouble for damaging the rover!

Art and math

Before you leave, check out the quietest station, “Shadow Play,” where 3-D numbers sit behind a glass case. Turn on the light and see how artist Kumi Yamashita has put the light at an angle to make a shadow of a child’s profile.

— Moira E. McLaughlin

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