‘Mathematics is the gate and key of the sciences. Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of this world’ (R. Bacon, 1266, Opus Majus). And if Bacon’s words were true at the time, they are even truer today. One can see at a glance the central role played by mathematics in our society and in the life of every individual. And yet, maths is generally not perceived as an attractive subject. Only few students decide to read Mathematics, Informatics, Natural sciences or Technology (the MINT disciplines) at university, despite the increasing demand for professionals working in these sectors. Also, we notice a widespread failure to handle and interpret numbers, data and percentages even though they are undeniably present everywhere. These are just some of the reasons that make the project’s themes so crucial. The mathematics we want to talk about is a broad concept that includes not only calculus, but also probability, statistics and simulation. We intend to create an interactive scientific exhibition revolving around the world of numbers: a place to engage in debate with a young audience (main target: aged 6-15), but also with a grown-up and more aware public, on topics like numbers, data, probability, and statistics – which are my research fields – often neglected when maths is presented to a non-specialist audience. Leaving notions and concepts aside, the project aims first and foremost to communicate the passion and enthusiasm I, as a researcher, experience every day in my work with numbers. This might seem too ambitious, but I believe that, through a ludic and intuitive approach, we can attract even the youngest audience to this fascinating world, building on the ‘unlearned basic core of numerical competence’ that even infants are believed to possess. The idea is to create an educational tool complementary to school: a space where to experience numbers through our body, their beauty and the descriptive power they can express; a place where to dialogue on quantitative themes, as Pythagoreans probably did in the agora. We believe that if all citizens were to assimilate these themes into their background, this newly acquired Quantitative Literacy would help them become more knowledgeable and responsible actors in social life in the age of technology and information.
The exhibition is articulated in a sort of 3-Dimensional space. With the same look of wonder of a child beginning to learn how to count on his fingertips (DIGITS) and has fun, we will also explore the world of numbers, which is often frightening, and its close relationship with human nature. Through magic and games like DICE, useing intuition and reasoning, we will talk about probability, variability, uncertainty and decisions under risk. Finally, we will show that we are swamped with DATA, but far from being numbed by them, we will try to make some sense of them, bringing data to life, interweaving them with our history and daily experience. In sum, this will be a 3D journey where all the experiences are mediated by explainers, who will guide the visitors through the exhibition and adapt concepts to their background and interests.
To achieve the project goals we have chosen to collaborate with experts in science communication: L’ideatorio (USI), a regional chapter of the Science et Cité Foundation. The team of communicators has been popularizing science for years in Ticino and abroad, where they have created tools, built networks and competencies as a partner of the EUSEA network, mass media and scientific institutions. The project also relies on a wide network of local partners: from the Società Matematica della Svizzera italiana (SMASI) to the Swiss National Supercomputing Center (CSCS-ETHZ), and Ticino’s main educational bodies and authorities. Hence we can count on an articulated network across the region, to ensure that the project becomes a tool widely shared by all the citizens. Some institutions have been so keen as to commit to a written agreement to financially support parts of the project.
Implemented in Southern (Italian-speaking) Switzerland, the project will last 24 months, but there is a firm intention that some of the specific modules created will be granted a longer life. Besides the interactive scientific exhibition (for which several games, dome projections, and specific exhibits will be designed and developed), we will create some math boxes (NumBoxes) containing activities on the world of numbers/data. The boxes will remain available to schools and citizens even after the exhibition closure. All this is 'Numb3d by numb3rs?'.