through April 29
at the Pacific Science Center.

Somehow I made it through a year's worth of calculus without really understanding math. I loved calculus, though--so abstract and useless, lines spinning around axes and making perfectly articulated blobs. But numbers, in practical and theoretical application, left me cold, glazed, and limp, like leftover Easter ham.

At one end of Mathematica: A World of Numbers and Beyond hangs a quote from the mathematician G. H. Hardy that reads, "It is easy to be impressed by what one does not do very well." They might inscribe that on my gravestone. Mathematica is a case in point: As I went from display to display, reading about probability, normal curves, vectors, and Boolean algebra, I got that familiar blank feeling, an emotional retro-flashback. Nothing I read in the exquisitely laid out installation penetrated into my stubborn brain, and so I was also reminded of the stale, fusty air of a museum on a grade-school field trip, the combination of relief at being away from the classroom and resistance to whatever was being pounded into our young heads.

So, lacking any genetic makeup that would allow me to describe this interactive display in terms of hard sciences, I'll fall back on my visual skills--hardly a disappointment, since Mathematica was designed in 1961 by Charles and Ray Eames, the designers who showed us how to think across categories about form, function, science, and art. Probably you're most familiar with their excellent chairs, built out of molded plywood, fiberglass, and wire, and still manufactured by Herman Miller. The more you learn about the Eameses (and by the way, Ray is a woman: Charles' wife, artist, and equal driving force of the design team), the more you see their work and influence. Much of the retro nostalgia for the '50s--especially the hard-assed minimalist interior décor--is based on forms popularized by Charles and Ray, always with an eye to utility, always with an impeccable visual sense. It's worth noting that the Eameses were not themselves hard-assed minimalists; interior shots of their house always showed it strewn with books, pillows, objects of comfort and fun.

The Eamses did not relegate themselves to the world of useful objects; many of their short films are masterpieces. The most famous, and most frequently shown, is Powers of Ten, an animated series of shots that zoom in from outer space--each frame's magnification increases exponentially--to a man asleep on the grass, down into his skin, the molecules, the great abstract that lies at the heart of things. Charles and Ray brought the same intellectual rigor, the same curiosity, the same eye to Mathematica, which was the first interactive display of its time. In it is revealed the elegance of numbers, and of thought itself. Who else would see multiplication as a cube built of orbs that light up in response to multipliers and multiplicands? Who else would fill a vitrine with math objects--Archimedes' mental model, the abacus, a braid representing an algebraic formula--that are as lovely as they are difficult? Who else would represent projective geometry and the Moebius band as kinetic sculptures?

The installation was recently refurbished, but happily the charming, dated parts have been left alone. The illustrations that accompany text throughout the exhibition resemble, at times, the elegant scribbles of Jules Feiffer, at other times the weird crosshatching of Joseph Schindelman, and one small area is distinctly pre-pop Warhol. A flow chart describing the way computers process information gives a brief pre-feminist narrative of a man trying to leave the house in the morning. Probability is described as the likely relationship between chest size and beauty queens.

At the entrance of Mathematica another quote, this time from Charles Eames himself, stresses the importance of "learning at an early age to respect things that have no immediate pay off [sic]." To nurse an abiding interest in math (in my humble, right-brain opinion) is to be dedicated to an idea whose beauty you for the most part take on faith. Mathematica, for all its educational intent, does what the Eameses did so well--to distill abstract concepts into specific objects, to reveal the beauty of the idea as well as the form.