Science partners

A joint Palestinian-Israeli math exhibition adds to the peace effort.

science test tube 88 (photo credit: )
science test tube 88
(photo credit: )
New age music welcomes the guests at the opening of "Meet Math" - a new exhibition on mathematics at the Bloomfield Science Museum. There is a buzz of excitement in the air, the kind of excitement that follows the completion of a "mission impossible," like climbing Mount Everest or pushing a huge rock up the slopes of a mountain. In this case, the proverbial rock is a vivid, colorful math exhibition that conveys the somewhat abstract themes of math with a vibrant mix of didactic and humorous elements. The main objective of this special exhibition is to bring the "joy of science" to the young visitors to the museum. The project's partners, who overcame major obstacles along the way, are Professors Peter Hillman and Maya Halevy from the Bloomberg Science Museum of Jerusalem (BSMJ), and Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, president, and Dr. Hasan Dweik, director of science education programs at east Jerusalem's Al Quds University. A third partner, Citta della Scienza (the Italian Institution of Science) in Naples, also provided significant support. Meet Math is designed in the pattern of four "islands" or themes: Number, Shape, Pattern and Computing. Each "island" is introduced by a thought-provoking quote from a mathematician and includes several interactive exhibits. Most of the exhibits are games that exemplify a certain mathematical principle, for example, sphere packing (under the "Pattern" theme). The problem of how to pack the maximum number of spheres into a box is illustrated in two dimensions with a variable-angle rhombus and table-tennis balls. The visitors eventually find out that hexagonal packing is best (but that is not easy to prove!). Another exhibit, "The Koenigsberg Bridges," relates to the subject of computing. The practical problem presented here is how to cross seven bridges without recrossing any of them. The visitor uses a rope to help plan his or her route and finally reaches the conclusion that this task is impossible and an eighth bridge is needed to complete the task successfully. This conclusion led the great 18th century German Mathematician Leonard Eular to found the important mathematical discipline of Graph Theory. Since the Bloomfield Science Museum is designed for children and youth the exhibits are playful, colorful and sometimes humorous. "The beginning of this process occurred when Prof. Sari Nusseibeh, in his role as president of Al Quds University, acknowledged the need to establish civil institutions for the benefit of Palestinian society. His first initiative was to establish a children's museum and for that purpose he came to us for advice," recalls Halevy, director of BSMJ. "Over time, this idea evolved into the decision to establish a science museum for children that would draw inspiration from our science museum in Jerusalem. Since then, for several years, we have been working with Al Quds University on a pilot project toward the establishment of an independent science center that would function as the first museum under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. We sought to create a project that would work for the benefit of both sides, Palestinians and Israelis." The new Interactive Science Center will be established at Al Quds University. This project was accepted and funded by the the European Union and received additional support from the Campania region of Italy and UNESCO. The opportunity crystallized when Halevy and Dweik and his colleague Awad Sharaf attended the annual Ecsite (European organization representing science centers, museums and institutes in 25 countries) conference in London. "The conference took place in 2000 when the intifada was at its peak and the fact that we arrived together as a team to the event attracted much attention," she continues. "We used the momentum of publicity to announce our initiative and petition for the support of the other participants. The ones who accepted the challenge were the Italians who immediately conveyed their backing of our project and their willingness to help us realize our plan. Mustaffa Al-Tayeb, director of the scientific department of UNESCO also announced his readiness to support the project and later on he provided the funding for the first workshop we held in Naples." This was the beginning of a three-year odyssey toward the creation of an exhibition that would mark the first original show of its kind undertaken by Palestinians, rather than the display of a "prefabricated exhibit" created elsewhere and offered to the Palestinians as a donation. "Creation of the exhibits and activities was divided among individuals and institutions according to expertise," says Hillman. "Mathematical content was was largely determined by Professor Udi De Shalit of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in consultation with Italian and Palestinian mathematicians. Overall design of the exhibition - scenery, layout, and exhibits - was the responsibility of the Italian staff at La Citta della Scienza in Naples. "Additional interactive exhibits, most of the exhibition software, and educational activities related to the exhibition were developed by BSMJ (Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem). Al Quds University deigned and built several exhibits (including the featured Entrance Sculpture) and is also in charge of developing a Web site for the exhibition." The process that led to the show embodied the "courage to cooperate," says Hillman. "The whole time we, and especially our Palestinian partners, had to overcome a variety of hurdles. Difficulties arose from both sides as Israel frequently closed key border crossings and on the other hand there were voices on the Palestinian side demanding that our partners stop cooperating with Israelis," he relates. "At the beginning of the intifada many of the Palestinian contributors were unable to gain access Jerusalem because of the closures. Prof. Sari Nusseibeh and Dr. Hassan Dweik usually had no problems since both of them live and work in Jerusalem, but the Palestinian curator, Awad Sharaf, who lives in Ramallah, was frequently prevented from coming and often it was easier for us to meet and work in Naples than in Jerusalem. Many times our Palestinian partners' lives were threatened and there was real danger for them to continue working with us." "We chose math because it is the language of logic," says Dweik. "Math is the basis for all science and even though I'm not a mathematician I acknowledge the centrality of this language in the process of scientific studies. We have a real need for teachers and human resources that can help us cope with the challenge of teaching science to our children. Therefore, it was vital for us to establish an institution where teachers could be trained for this purpose. "Math is all around us," he continues. "We admire it and hate it at the same time. It's a language used by everyone and at the same time there are many people, especially school students, who are terrified of it and feel it is beyond their grasp. This exhibition allows visitors an accessible route to math, one that even children will find enjoyable." When asked about the difficulties the team encountered along the way Dweik says that most of all he and his Palestinian colleagues were compelled to "discover" their own optimism. They were not successful in meeting this challenge on the opening night, however. Sharaf was stopped at military checkpoints and not allowed into Israel. At the moment of fruition of his longtime dream, Sharaf had to remain in Ramallah. Nonetheless, Dweik remains optimistic. "We believe in dialogue and the chance for peace between our people," he claims. "This exhibition is the 'handmade' creation of three national groups: Israeli, Palestinian and Italian. But most of all it is the product of people who were highly devoted to the idea of peace. We are thankful to Antonio Basolino, president of the Campania region in Italy, who supported us right from the beginning and encouraged Citta della Scienza to become our partner. I wish for our cooperation to continue in spite of the current political situation because after all we are making this effort for the sake of our children and for the promise of a better future." "We feel part of a very significant event," says Sandro De Bernardin, Italian ambassador to Israel. "We were proud to supply the extra wheel in the venture and be part of this unique dialogue and important mission. Math is often defined as the handwriting of God and has its own existence beyond differences of language and culture. Therefore we acknowledged the importance of this project right from the beginning. Instead of Israel being a place of confrontation it can become a place for dialogue." Asserts Hillman, "Most of all we wanted to bring 'the joy of mathematics' to the public. Sharing these 'little joys' will hopefully lead our people to seek real peace." "We speak in one voice," concludes Dr. Dweik with a smile. The exhibition, which opened this month, will be on display for six months, after which it will move to its permanent home at Al Quds University.