Jumpin’ geometry at the Exploratorium 

Simply hearing the words “stellated rhombic dodecahedron,” “hexadecagon” or “polyhedral” may be enough to induce an anxiety attack. But these days at the Exploratorium, geometry doesn’t involve sitting at a desk trying to find the area of a cube. Instead, everyday geometric shapes are transformed into jungle gyms, slides and tunnels.

The “Geometry Playground,” running through Sept. 6, is a destination spot for summer camps, families or anyone looking for an excuse to climb through giant 3-D shapes.

“This is all about celebrating what people already know,” says project manager Peggy Monahan. “It’s spatial reasoning, something we use every day to navigate across town, fold a piece of paper, or even produce a dance move.” 

“Geometry Playground,” which is funded by the National Science Foundation, has been three years in the making. It is a fully interactive exhibition, requiring visitors to use both their bodies and minds to explore more than 20 geometry displays.

The “Gyroid Climber,” a kind of mathematical jungle gym labyrinth, allows kids to climb through and explore the unique shape. When extended in all directions, the shape is composed of two completely separate spaces which never intersect. Unless two people follow the same path through the gyroid, they will not connect, as they are on opposite sides of the surface, says Paul Stepahin, one of the developers of “Geometry Playground.”

The gyroid was recently discovered to be responsible for the shades of green found on the wings of butterflies. “The colors are defraction-based,” says Stepahin. “This means that light bounces through the gyroid and is scattered in a way that reflects a green color.”

The idea of light interacting with shapes to create reflections is present throughout “Geometry Playground.”

In the “Distorted Chair” exhibit, a cylindrical anamorphic mirror shows how light rays become spread out by geometry. When visitors look in the mirror, the distorted chair looks normal, but their bodies look abnormal.

“The mirror squeezes from the sides,” says Monahan. “You look normal vertically, but horizontally you’re squished.”

The goal of the curved-mirror exhibits is to provide visitors with a practical understanding of spatial reasoning
by forcing them to think three-dimensionally.

Another way visitors can learn about spatial reasoning is by playing with small-scale shapes at the “Space-Filling Blocks” exhibit. Here they create an arrangement called tessellation by stacking identical star-like shapes with virtually no space between the blocks. A large-scale version of the tessellation next to the exhibit serves as a reference and a climbing structure for kids.

Providing visitors with two different scales of shapes allows them to have a tactile as well as mental connection with the exhibit, says Stepahin.

“The experience is very different when you can hold a shape and then climb through a large version of it,” says Monahan. “Scale largely affects how people respond to exhibits; at ‘Geometry Playground’ we combine traditional and immersive exhibits.”

“Geometry Playground” also has exhibits of geometric patterns found in nature, including, shells, coral, beehives and animal horns. A piece called “Just Rust” displays two tin cans that have rusted into an amazing kaleidoscopic pattern of shapes, showing that math can become art.

Also in the exhibit are works by artists-in residence, including “Polyhedra” by Stacy Speyer, “Geometron” by John Edmark and “Drawing in Circles” by Tauba Auerbach.


Geometry Playground

Where: Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon St., San Francisco
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; closed Mondays; exhibit closes Sept. 6
Tickets: $15 general; $12 for ages 13-17; $10 for ages 4-12; free for children under 4; free first Wednesday each month
Contact: (415) 561-0363; www.exploratorium.edu

This article was corrected Monday, Aug. 2, 2010. The original article listed ticket prices as: $12 general; $10 for ages 4-12; free for children under 4. The actual ticket prices are: $15 general; $12 for ages 13-17; $10 for ages 4-12.

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