15-Year-Old Spots a Math Mistake in a Museum Exhibit

The "Mathematica: A World of Numbers...and Beyond" exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science opened in 1981. Until recently, a small error in the equation for the Golden Ratio had gone completely unnoticed—that is, until 15-year-old Joseph Rosenfeld visited the museum.

The high school sophomore from Virginia was in Boston on a family vacation when he noticed that the equation had a minus sign where there should be a plus.

“It was cool,” Rosenfeld told “At first, I wasn’t sure, I thought maybe I had it wrong, but I was excited.”

When Rosenfeld realized he was right about the missing addition symbol, he left a note about the error at the museum's front desk, but didn't include any contact information. His aunts, who had accompanied the teen on his visit, later reached out and informed the museum about who had spotted the mistake. In response, the museum sent Joseph a letter acknowledging their error and promising to address it.

"You are right that the formula for the Golden Ratio is incorrect. We will be changing the – sign to a + sign on the three places it appears if we can manage to do it without damaging the original," Alana Parkes, the museum’s exhibit content developer, wrote in the letter. She noted that changing that particular exhibit would be tricky because the entire thing is considered an artifact. However, by the time the story ran, the error had been fixed.

For his contribution, Joseph, who wants to go to MIT one day, was invited back to tour the museum's newest exhibit, The Science Behind Pixar.

UPDATE: As many people have pointed out, in this comment section and others, while Joseph had a point, he wasn't right in saying the museum was wrong.

Technically, the Golden Ratio—which describes the relationship between side lengths of a particularly appealing rectangles—is (√(5)±1)/2, where ± means plus or minus. Typically, it is written with just the plus sign as a way of indicating that the ratio of the whole segment to the longer part is equal to the ratio of the longer part to the shorter part. This number, the one you get if you use addition, is 1.618... going on forever. However, it is equally true to say that the smaller part divided by the larger part equals the larger part divided by the whole—a ratio described by the same formula if you use subtraction instead.

Joseph was expecting to see the plus sign because 1.618 is the number typically associated with the Golden Ratio, a number symbolized by the lowercase Greek phi. The museum, however, had the formula written with the minus sign, or 0.618. As a final point in their favor, earlier in the exhibit, the ratio is symbolized by an uppercase phi, which is used to represent 0.618. So while the museum was unconventional, they were not only correct, they were also consistent.

So the museum wasn't wrong. But neither was Joseph. And when the whole thing was cleared up, the museum had this to say:

Louvre Abu Dhabi
The Louvre Abu Dhabi Just Opened the World's First Radio-Guided Highway Art Gallery
Louvre Abu Dhabi
Louvre Abu Dhabi

One way to plan an epic art road trip is to drive from museum to museum, but in the United Arab Emirates, you can take in masterpieces without leaving your car. As Artforum reports, the Louvre Abu Dhabi has lined a stretch of highway with billboards displaying works by Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent Van Gogh, and Piet Mondrian.

The 10 works on display along the E/11 Sheikh Zayed road connecting Dubai to Abu Dhabi are recreations of pieces at or on loan to the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which developed the project in partnership with three radio stations. Dubbed the Highway Gallery, it was "created to reinforce art's role in elevating everyday life into something beautiful and memorable," the museum website reads.

Like in a traditional gallery, the 30-foot-by-23-foot displays along the road are accompanied by a guided audio tour. Drivers can learn the title, artist, technique, and other details about each piece by tuning into a participating local radio station (Radio 1 FM, Classic FM, or Emarat FM). There they will hear descriptions of Leonardo da Vinci’s La Belle Ferronnière, Van Gogh’s Self Portrait, 1887, and Piet Mondrian’s Composition with Blue, Red, Yellow, and Black, as well as the Islamic sculpture Mari-Cha Lion and the sarcophagus of Egyptian princess Henuttawy.

The Highway Gallery will run through mid-March. After that, art lovers can drive their cars to the Louvre Abu Dhabi to see the items in person.

[h/t Artforum]

Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
How a London Museum Is Preserving a Chunk of the 143-Ton Whitechapel Fatberg
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images
Daniel Leal-Olivas, AFP/Getty Images

When UK officials learned of the 143-ton Whitechapel fatberg mucking up London’s sewer system, their first concern was getting rid of it. Now, the curators at the Museum of London are figuring out how to best preserve a chunk of the monstrous trash mass so as many visitors as possible can see it.

As WIRED UK reports, the museum's exhibition, titled "Fatberg!", launches on Friday, February 9. It features a congealed mound of fat, hair, diapers, wet wipes, sanitary napkins, and condoms that was salvaged from the Whitechapel fatberg shortly after it was discovered beneath the streets of London in September 2017. According to the exhibition’s curator, Vyki Sparkes, no one has ever tried preserving a fatberg before.

The garbage globs, which form from grease and oil poured down sink drains, attract debris ranging in size from candy wrappers to planks of wood. Just a small piece of one can provide a fascinating glimpse at the waste that ends up in city sewers, but displaying a fatberg for the public to view poses logistical challenges.

In this case, the fatberg piece was set out to dry for seven weeks before it was transported to the Museum of London. The resulting item has the consistency of "parmesan crossed with moon rock," according to CBC News, and is roughly the size of a shoebox. Outside of the moist environment of London’s underbelly, the solid chunk may continue to dry out and crumble into pieces. Mold growth and sewer fly infestations are also potential issues as long as it's left out in the open.

The museum curators initially considered pickling the fatberg in formaldehyde to solve the aging problem. This idea was ultimately nixed as the liquid would have likely dissolved the whole lump into loose sludge. Freezing was another possibility, but the museum was unable to get a hold of the specialist freezers necessary for that to happen in time.

In the end, the curators decided to display it as-is within three layers of boxes. The clear cases are meant to spare guests from the noxious odor that Sparkes described to CBC News as a weeks-old diaper smell that’s simmered into something more like a “damp Victorian basement.” The exhibition closes July 1, at which point the museum must decide if the fatberg, if it remains intact, should become a permanent part of their collection. And if the mass doesn’t end up surviving the five-month show, obtaining another one to sample shouldn’t be too difficult.

[h/t WIRED UK]


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