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The National Museum of Mathematics, known as MoMath, has a wonderful collection of mathematical exhibits at their museum in midtown Manhattan, and I would recommend anyone to visit.

The museum is currently seeking to improve the quality of the mathematical content descriptions that it has for many of its exhibits — it wants to have descriptions of the exhibits at various levels of mathematical sophistication, such as basic, intermediate and in-depth.

I have been a part of the museum effort in charge of writing these descriptions, and I had suggested to the museum the idea of opening it up to contributions from our enthusiastic and expert community here at math.SE, as a way of crowd-sourcing the project.

Question. Would it be permissible to ask questions here at math.SE focused on producing quality mathematical descriptions of various MoMath museum exhibits, to be used by the museum?

I imagine that each question would be about one exhibit, with photos and basic information, requesting descriptions at the basic, intermediate and advanced level.

I think that this would be a lot of fun for the community, since the exhibits are generally quite interesting mathematically, and I think we have the right expertise here to help out the museum. But I wanted to ask here on meta first, since I recognize that this is not the usual sort of question. Users who make contributions that are used by the museum will be acknowledged in a suitable manner.

There would not be a burdensome number of questions; I could keep it to at most one per day, and probably less often than that.

(Also, in case there is any confusion: the museum is a non-profit organization, and my own advisory work for them is not paid.)

The first question might be about the Square-Wheeled Trike exhibit.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this thread and this type of questions so much! :-) My explanation about the picture simply is: "The notion of being a useful wheel is not absolute! It depends on two parameters: First the type of the ground (model?!) and second the type of the wheel itself. Note that the picture shows that the vehicles with square shape wheels can move easily when the ground is nicely prepared!" $\endgroup$ – user180918 Feb 17 '15 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ @AliSadeghDaghighi I'm glad to hear it. I also think it will be a positive thing to have these questions, but I wanted to ask the community first, before posting any of them. (I think you may have meant to link to this question: math.stackexchange.com/q/1006293/413) $\endgroup$ – JDH Feb 17 '15 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the link. I am searching to find something which I saw somewhere (MO, MSE, MESE, ...?). A post with a title like "Nice objects for a math museum!" Maybe it is a MO soft question. $\endgroup$ – user180918 Feb 17 '15 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ Would you please let me know the average age of your audiences? Preschool, elementary school, high school, adults...?And what sort of explanations do you prefer? With too much mathematical formulations or just a mathematical description written as a text? Do you have a unique description for each object? Is it in the form of a movie (like almost all modern museums) or it is just a text? And finally what happens at your museums when night falls? Do mathematical objects move? If yes, you need a mathematician watchman and I offer my service! :-) $\endgroup$ – user180918 Feb 17 '15 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ I find this post in MESE. It could be related if you want to manage your museum more interactively. Nowadays even the Zoos have a particular section for children to play with animals. $\endgroup$ – user180918 Feb 17 '15 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ The museum is open to all ages, although it seems that many young children are accompanied by their (mathematically minded) parents. But also school groups. The museum also hosts math-for-adults nights (see m.google.com/app/basic/stream/…), with drinks and adult conversation and music. $\endgroup$ – JDH Feb 17 '15 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ You may be thinking of this question mathoverflow.net/q/50343/1946, which was seeking suggestions for MoMath exhibits. $\endgroup$ – JDH Feb 17 '15 at 23:37
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, as it is a "mathematical Louvre" with possibly some adult audiences, do you have a "mathematics behind paintings" hall there? I mean a painting gallery (with copy paintings of course!) which explains the mathematics behind famous paintings for example like these examples or several uses of golden ration in formation of Venus' body in Botticelli's Birth of Venus or perspective, etc. $\endgroup$ – user180918 Feb 18 '15 at 0:12
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As I stated in above comments, I strongly support this type of questions because:

  • It is better than solving a calculus homework for a lazy student!

  • Assuming a degree of flexibility in definition, this type of questions could be legitimated in "soft-question" framework.

  • It helps all of us to become more familiar with new dimensions and interesting applications of pure mathematics in simple daily used examples. It could be eye opening even for professional mathematicians!

  • It is a part of our ethical duty as a mathematician to let the next generations know about the beauty and joy of mathematics and when we can do it here, why not to do?

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As far as on-topicness goes:

Is it about math? (i.e. is subject to particular expertise of mathematicians)

Yes. Okay, you can post questions about it.

Is it actually a question?

As far as posing such a question, one probably doesn't want to just post, "How would you describe this exhibit, at a basic, intermediate, and in-depth level?" because, if we're being honest, that isn't a very good question and isn't going to give you the best answers possible. I think you'll need to put some thought into how to best pose such questions - people here are really good at giving correct (both morally and technically) answers to clear questions, but we are limited in what we can give by what the questions puts in (and this is nontrivial, given your specific and fairly non-standard hopes for these question). So, what might we need to give a good answer? Well:

  • Phrase clearly what you are interested in. I would assume this is usually, "Why does this work" - but being specific (e.g. "Why does riding this trike seem like a bike?") is good, and I can imagine that you sometimes do have more specific thoughts in mind. (For instance, "Where do the 17 wallpaper groups come from?" is a somewhat different question, which might be interesting for an in-depth explanation). That is to say, close-ended questions are generally more likely to elicit good responses.

  • Include context; what sort of depth are you hoping for? For instance, what does "basic", "intermediate", or "in-depth" actually mean? What sort of (relevant) concepts are you hoping their readers will be familiar with? What sort of depth would you like to achieve?

  • If you have particular ideas about formatting, then you can state it in the question. I wouldn't say that this is always well received - some people probably just like answering questions and will ignore it. But you can certainly ask, and people will probably be amenable to reasonable restraints.

I might suggest that, if the above considerations are greatly different, even if the questions address the same topic, one might consider posting multiple questions (and including links in any question to any other one to avoid duplicated effort). Also, I think you can get valuable contributions here - even if you already pretty much know what you'd write if it were you, one can often find insights here - but you'll probably have to do plenty of editing to get anything of the form you want.

(Also, reusing content from the site in MoMath in the manner you hope to sounds like it would be fine; if you've not already looked, see bullet #3 here. Of course, asking permission is good, if only to figure out the appropriate attribution/inflate the ego of useful people)

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  • $\begingroup$ I am wondering whether I should ask people to post the basic, intermediate and in-depth answers as separate answers, so that we might take advantage of voting for each category separately. What is your view on that? $\endgroup$ – JDH Feb 18 '15 at 2:05
  • $\begingroup$ @JDH I think it depends - if you expect each of those to have essentially the same mathematical content, but some with more elaboration, I think a single answer & single question would be most appropriate, because that is most true to the nature of the SE platform. However, for exhibits where you might expect the most in-depth stuff to contain levels of abstraction or points of view not present in basic answers, I think posting two questions (linked to each other) would be best, as the answers could be completely different (rather than just elaborations of each other). $\endgroup$ – Milo Brandt Feb 18 '15 at 2:13
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    $\begingroup$ I am hesitant to post more than one question per exhibit, since there are a large number of exhibits, and this would become unwieldy. But there are several kinds of answers that are wanted for each exhibit. Perhaps we can manage with single answers, but I believe that some people will be better at the basic descriptions and others better at the in-depth descriptions. $\endgroup$ – JDH Feb 18 '15 at 2:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JDH Well, you could certainly say that you'd like individual answers to be directed towards either basic/in-depth answer - I don't know how well voting will work in that case, but it'd be within the scope of the site, so you might as well try and see how it goes. $\endgroup$ – Milo Brandt Feb 18 '15 at 2:27
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    $\begingroup$ No major disagreement, but I have this feeling that some of the best answers might be of the type where the answerer is just riffing on the theme. Essentially forming their own variant of the question and answering that instead. It is a not the way we usually do things here, but may be we should (when it isn't homework which is the case here)? $\endgroup$ – Jyrki Lahtonen Feb 22 '15 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JDH On TeX.SE, I've seen many of the "Showcase" questions use bounties to reward (and mark) multiple answers. That might be one strategy to pursue. $\endgroup$ – Dennis Mar 1 '15 at 7:55

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