Numbers Geeks and Mets Fans Score $1 Million at Math Museum Gala

  • `Captain Math will get you high tonight,' croons Peter Muller
  • James Simons, Boaz Weinstein join honoree Santiago Calatrava

At the National Museum of Mathematics gala Tuesday night, Peter Muller, chief executive officer of PDT Partners, put on his Mets jersey (#28 for Daniel Murphy) and announced the score was 1-1.

Peter Muller at gala bat

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Sounding a little bitter to be missing the first game of the World Series, he needn’t have worried: the gala ended during the sixth inning -- with eight still to play. So he was able to see the Mets give up their lead and lose.

Miller himself though had scored under the tiled ceilings of Guastavino’s, coaxing almost $200,000 in text pledges from guests by getting behind a Steinway piano and singing customized lyrics for Billy Joel’s "Captain Jack."

Captain Math aka Glen Whitney arrives as Peter Muller plays at the piano

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

"Captain Math will get you high tonight," Muller crooned as a man in mask and equation-decorated cape appeared (it was Glen Whitney, a former Renaissance Technologies algorithm specialist who co-founded the museum.) “Just a little fractal geometry and you’ll be smilin’."

Fractal Tree

When the song was over, the pair unveiled a screen that displayed pledged dollars in circles sized relative to others; when table sales were added the total came to more than $1 million raised. A museum intern wrote the program for this data visualization that managed to make a plodding exercise fun to watch, especially when big circles of $50,000 popped in, turning smaller pledges into dots.

Pledges arrive via bubble

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

The museum, located on two floors in a building off Madison Square Park in Manhattan, specializes in just these kinds of visual and graphical methods to convey mathematical concepts. The human fractal tree puts a person up on a screen and uses copies of them to create branches off their arms. There’s a square-wheeled tricycle and the Tracks of Galileo, sloping paths on which visitors race objects.

"What boy doesn’t like race cars?" said Arthur Steinmetz, CEO of Oppenheimer Funds.

Another popular exhibit is Polypaint, where kids dip a brush into cans of virtual paint and draw on a screen, with their marks replicating symmetrically.

The entrance to the National Museum of Mathematics

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

James Simons

John Overdeck and Arthur Steinmetz

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

"Kids love the geometry," said John Overdeck, co-founder of Two Sigma Investments. "I’m more numerical."

"I’m more visual," added Steinmetz. "I didn’t start thinking math was fun until I got into calculus."

Steinmetz knows his numbers though. Later, he edited his prepared remarks about his firm’s increasing support of the museum. "My communications people wrote the word ‘exponentially,’ but I got to be honest, it’s probably more linear. I haven’t really derived what the factor is.”

Other entertainment came from magician Mark Mitton, who made a knot in a handkerchief disappear; he said he’s performed on James Simons’s yacht Archimedes.

Simons, the founder of Renaissance Technologies, was a guest along with Jade Vinson, John Sabat, John Petry and Bob Darnell, a professor at Rockefeller University and CEO of the New York Genome Center.

Jade Vinson and Katherine Hasard

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Dinosaur’s Ribs

Santiago Calatrava

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Architect Santiago Calatrava was honored. To illustrate the connection between math and beauty, he described the geometric patterns found in Spain’s Alhambra and the Alcazar of Seville. "Math can help to bring a kind of sacred language," Calatrava said.
Kurt Kimmel, a semiconductor engineer, sees something else in Calatrava’s Oculus, part of his design for the World Trade Center transportation hub.

"It’s like the rib cage of a giant dinosaur," said Kimmel, a friend of Stephen Della Pietra of Renaissance Technologies, an event co-chairman with his wife, Pamela Hurst-Della Pietra of the Institute of Digital Media and Child Development.

Nina Douglas, Mike Douglas and Stephen Della Pietra

Photographer: Amanda Gordon/Bloomberg

Before dessert, guests were given sets of sticks and connectors and challenged to construct a form adhering to certain criteria. Boaz Weinstein of Saba Capital Management had confidence his guests, including his mother-in-law, a math teacher, and a friend he met in high school playing competitive chess, would figure it out. They did -- though they weren’t the first.

Boaz Weinstein wearing a gala puzzle

Photographer: Amanda Gordon

— With assistance by Zachary Mider

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