Popularizing math and science
Educating the masses about the wonders of technology’s underlying disciplines
An IBM ad from 1960 showing a pyramid, sphere and cube.

IBM has never been a product-oriented enterprise. The company has always charged its employees with creating and deploying novel solutions to emergent problems across industry and society. The goal is a constant, but as problems and technologies evolve, the offerings do too.

IBM long ago recognized the challenge that comes with selling novel goods and services. It involves priming the marketplace by helping clients and the broader public understand technology and its utility to improve life and business. To accomplish this feat — and to foster the next generation of talent to keep producing innovative solutions — IBM relies on education.

The company has put considerable resources over the decades into reimagining and supporting new models of formal science and technology education. But its efforts have also extended into cultural settings, where it has created hugely ambitious interactive spectacles that have informed and delighted millions about the power of technology’s underlying disciplines, mathematics and science, and the wondrous potential of gathering, processing and understanding information.

Mathematica and the THINK Exhibit were created decades apart, but they share a common lineage and ambition.

Mathematica

IBM CEO Thomas Watson Jr. planted the seeds in the 1950s for the first of the company’s signature efforts when he turned to the husband-and-wife design duo Charles and Ray Eames. At the time, public apprehension and uncertainty around computer science was a real problem. Watson called on the couple to use their signature style of education and entertainment to help demystify technology and to celebrate its life-changing potential. While best known as the creators of the iconic Eames chair, the couple had a history of tackling complex subjects in film and in classroom environments. For IBM they created, most notably, Mathematica, A World of Numbers ... and Beyond.

First staged at the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles, Mathematica was also a key component of IBM’s pavilion at the 1964-65 World’s Fair, and remained on permanent display until 1998 before touring major US art museums. Through a hands-on approach it unpacked concepts ranging from celestial mechanics and the Möbius strip to projective geometry. Of Mathematica’s purpose, Charles Eames stated, “We want to free people’s minds to see mathematics as the art of building relationships, the art of constructing abstract models and situations. If the whole of mathematics were a mile, what you learned in high school would only be the first inch. We will be happy if we can give a few clues to the excitement and beauty that make up the rest of the mile.”

Comprising more than 15 films and 30 exhibits, Mathematica appeared in whole and in parts around the world. Elements were replicated at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. Visitors ascended into an egg-shaped theater showing a multimedia presentation that explained computing’s potential to help humankind. It also made its way into classrooms when thousands of schoolchildren learned about the scale of the universe by watching the 1968 documentary Powers of Ten.

Commenting on the installation when it appeared at the New York Hall of Science in Queens in 2004, New York Times critic at large Edward Rothstein wrote, “It still exudes confidence. It invites attention not by promising participatory sensation but by offering beauty and elegance. It spurs curiosity not by aiming for simplicity but by offering hints of complexity.”

Today, three iterations of Mathematica are on display at the Museum of Science in Boston, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, and at the New York Hall of Science. Moreover, Mathematica paved the way for the types of experiential exhibits now commonly seen in world-class museums like San Francisco’s Exploratorium, Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, North Carolina’s Discovery Place and dozens more.

We want to free people’s minds to see mathematics as the art of building relationships, the art of constructing abstract models and situations Charles Eames Creator of Mathematica, A World of Numbers ... and Beyond
THINK Exhibit

Many companies celebrate big anniversaries with a party. When IBM turned 100 in 2011, it created a multifaceted educational experience in the spirit of Mathematica. The goal was to highlight the ways that technology transformed the world during the 20th century — and to demonstrate how the intelligent use of data could unlock untold insights and opportunities about the world around us.

The company hired three journalists to write Making the World Work Better, a business book that explains the role that science and technology play in societal progress. It commissioned three accomplished directors, including Davis Guggenheim, to create short films celebrating IBM’s corporate culture and innovations. The IBM Lecture Series, created in partnership with leading universities — including Copenhagen Business School, HEC Paris, Tsinghua University in Beijing and the University of Chicago — engaged future leaders in discussions about what 100 years had taught them about driving progress in business, technology and society. And THINK: A Forum on the Future of Leadership, convened 700 business leaders in New York City to discuss, among other issues, how the model of leadership must evolve to meet the challenges of the 21st century across business, technology and society.

The centerpiece of the Centennial celebration, the THINK Exhibit, was unveiled at a custom-made edifice in New York City’s Lincoln Center. The 10,000-square-foot experience featured a 360-degree film and interactive touch screens that shed light on how data analytics can improve society, from mitigating traffic and hunger to fighting disease. An external data-visualization wall — 12 feet tall and 123 feet long — harnessed localized data feeds to depict, for example, nearby traffic flow, cellular activity and air quality, reflecting the core message of the company’s Smarter Planet initiative. An adjunct hall featured 100 “Icons of Progress” to demonstrate IBM’s role in creating formative technologies and solutions over the years.

The exhibit welcomed hundreds of thousands of visitors during its roughly three-week run, won numerous awards, and in 2013 was relocated to the Innovations Pavilion at EPCOT and to various science museums around the world. Of the Lincoln Center installation, the New York Times critic Rothstein said, “The exhibition is visually striking, and its information is often compelling. But it also requires some deciphering and examination. ... We are watching representations of complex phenomena: the flow of traffic and of water ... a grid of accumulating vectors represents credit card transactions, the fraudulent ones exploding in red; a vast map of Manhattan with varying colors shows how many rooftops are capable of harnessing solar energy.”

The world’s problems change. Science is constantly evolving. Technology is in a continual state of flux. But the power of education — and entertainment — endures.

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