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Zaha Hadid on Maths, Architecture and Women in Science

By Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs.

When Zaha Hadid won the commission to design a new Mathematics gallery at the Science Museum, there was one question that I simply had to ask her: given she studied mathematics at university and the pervasive evidence that science is institutionally sexist, how much of a hurdle faces women today and how much of an inspiration would her appointment prove to be?


Her acknowledgement that, even for her, the gender gap remains an issue, and particularly in Britain, surprised me: “I’ve come across it a lot in my career here and I never felt it anywhere else to be honest,” she remarks. Her comments, made during a recent visit to the Science Museum, are particularly salient on Ada Lovelace Day (14 Oct), an international celebration of the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and maths.

The Iraqi-British architect was born in 1950 and raised in one of Baghdad’s first Bauhaus-inspired houses. “In Iraq, maths was taught as a way of life,” she recalls. “We used to just do maths to resolve problems continuously, as if we were sketching.”

But when she came to boarding school in Britain in the early 1960s she found that she “was much more advanced in the sciences than many of the kids at the time, not because they were not smart. I think it was badly taught and it’s very important to teach sciences and maths in a way that makes it appealing.”

Before she went to boarding school, aged around 10, Dame Zaha vividly remembers a trip with her parents to the Science Museum. “It was for me at the time extremely fascinating to see instruments and understand about science. And, around the same time, I also went to art museums. I used to come every summer to London when I was in my teens.”

She went on to study mathematics at the American University of Beirut. The explosion of interest in construction and modernity of the 1960s encouraged her to study at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London. Today, she is one of the most sought-after architects on the planet, the only female recipient of the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the Nobel Prize of the field.

From the Aquatics Centre she designed for the London Olympics to Rome’s curvilinear National Museum of the XXI Century Arts and China’s Guangzhou opera house, her concepts are futuristic and often voluptuous, with powerful, curving forms. Her work, she explains, has its roots in movement that is a century old, citing the work of Russian abstract artist Kazimir Malevich. The dire economic situation in the West in the seventies “fostered in us similar ambitions: we thought to apply radical new ideas to regenerate society.”

One would have thought that her global success as a ‘starchitect’ is a testament to how the gender gap is no longer a hurdle in Britain. However, like her late British-educated father, an economist and industrialist who helped to found the Iraqi National Democratic party, she found that she had to be dogged to succeed in her career. “I took a risk. “People were thinking I was crazy to do what I did even 30 years ago because it was very risky and that no-one’s going to give me a job. They were right.”

In the 1970s Dame Zaha met Peter Rice, an engineer, who encouraged her and she established her own London-based practice. However, she still struggled for recognition. Twenty years ago, the Millennium Commission refused to fund her winning “crystal necklace” design for the Cardiff Bay Opera House. Dame Zaha said at the time that she had been stigmatised on grounds of gender and race.

There is plenty of evidence that it remains a battle for women to pursue science and mathematics with the same ease enjoyed by men. According to the US National Science Foundation, women comprise only 21% of full science professors (just 5% of full engineering professors) even though they earn about half the doctorates in science and engineering in the US. They have to work harder to make the same impact.

One study, published last December by Cassidy Sugimoto of Indiana University Bloomington, and colleagues, evaluated 5,483,841 papers published between 2008–2012 and concluded that “in the most productive countries, all articles with women in dominant author positions receive fewer citations than those with men in the same positions”.

It is a similar picture for the UK and for architecture too. Last year Dame Zaha criticised the “misogyny” among UK architects, arguing that society is not equipped to help women back to work after childbirth. “You know we still suffer,” Dame Zaha tells me. “ it’s not very smooth. There’s been a problem always – the stereotype is that girls can’t do sciences.”

But, of course, they can. Over the years she has taught at many prestigious institutions, from the Harvard Graduate School of Design to the Hochschule für bildende Künste Hamburg and The University of Applied Arts, Vienna. “Some of my best students are women,” she remarks. “I think it’s very important to encourage them.”

She acknowledges that her struggle and resulting success plays an inspirational role. “I do notice now when I go out to give a talk somewhere there are many girls who come to me. They want to be reassured that they actually can break that barrier and also do it with confidence. That’s why education is very important as it gives you confidence to conquer the next step. That confidence allows you to take risks.”

At the launch of the museum’s new Mathematics gallery in September, Dame Zaha was accompanied by museum Director Ian Blatchford, David and Claudia Harding – who made an unprecedented £5 million donation to build the gallery through their foundation – Culture Secretary Sajid Javid and her business partner, architect Patrik Schumacher, who helps Dame Zaha lead her team of 300 people.

Science Museum Curator David Rooney explained how the centrepiece of the forthcoming gallery will be the Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’, a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12-metre wingspan that was designed to fly safely at slow speeds from short take-offs.

The aircraft’s aerodynamics proved influential at the very beginnings of civilian air travel. In the same way, the swirling flows of air around the aircraft in flight inspired Dame Zaha’s design and will allow mathematics to take flight in the museum.


Behind the Handley Page in her design lie three minimal surfaces (they enclose the smallest possible area that satisfy some constraints) that are based on the shapes of the vortices in the turbulence created behind the plane in flight. The equation defining these surfaces is governed by six different parameters and, by tweaking them, a menagerie of sensuous shapes emerges on screen in the offices of Zaha Hadid Architects. “Mathematics and geometry has an amazing influence particularly on our work,” she says. “It’s very exciting.”

Some of these surfaces will provide the backdrops to support display cases used throughout the galleries to provide an appropriate setting for a dazzling range of objects that will span 400 years of science and mathematics. It seems only appropriate to point out, on the day we celebrate the ‘first computer programmer‘, that the shapes were generated with Mathematica software.

The Mathematics gallery is the fourth commission this year as part of the redevelopment of the Science Museum. Wilkinson Eyre has been appointed to create £24 million Medical Galleries; London-based Coffey Architects is designing a new £1.8 million library and research centre in the museum’s Wellcome Wolfson Building; and Muf, a collective of artists, architects and urban designers, was selected to design a £4 million interactive gallery in the museum. Around one third of the building will change over the next few years, marking the biggest transformation of the museum since it was established more than a century ago.

How Mathematics Inspired the Writers of The Simpsons and Futurama

Pete Dickinson, Head of Comms, reflects on a global premiere and the mathematics hidden within the Simpsons and Futurama.

Leading lights of the Simpsons and Futurama, Al Jean and David X. Cohen, served up a sell-out event at the Science Museum that danced effortlessly like a Simpsons episode between scintillating story-telling, one-liners and hard-core mathematics.

QI creator John Lloyd, CEO of Innovate UK Iain Gray, and mathematics populariser Alex Bellos were among those lured to the museum for an evening of maths and mirth, but it was 12-year-old Toby Hawkins whose question precipitated the eveningís global premiere.

Toby wondered whether we could hope for a Simpsons and Futurama crossover episode if anyone should prove that P does not equal NP and thus solve a major unresolved problem in computer science. In response we were treated to the first ever airing of part of a ‘Simpsorama’ crossover show that will see Bender travelling back in time in an attempt to kill Bart so worldwide disaster can be averted.

Al Jean and David X. Cohen discussing maths and The Simpsons at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

Al Jean and David X. Cohen discussing maths and The Simpsons at the Science Museum. Credit: Science Museum

The evening was expertly compered by Simon Singh, author of The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets. He invited Al Jean and David X. Cohen to explain how and why they have regularly embellished episodes of both series with references to degree-level maths such as Fermatís Last Theorem or the Taxicab number.

Al Jean, who worked on the first series and is now executive producer of The Simpsons, and studied maths at Harvard, credited serendipity; many of the writers had scientific backgrounds. He went on to suggest that mathematics and comedy writing demand the same kind of thinking and a similar, sometimes obsessive, quest for the perfect solution.

We heard how, in the early 90s, the writers faxed a mathematician working at NASA to ensure the accuracy of a line by store owner Apu Nahasapeemapetilon when he boasts ‘I can recite pi to forty thousand places. The last digit is 1.’

David X Cohen, creator of Futurama who happens to have a computer science degree from UC Berkeley, hinted at a more serious purpose. Lamenting the way entertainment goes out of its way to make maths seem boring, he said ‘part of what I think about when we do Futurama is let’s make it fun, let’s not make it scary’.

Earlier, Science Museum Deputy Director Jean Franczyk had provided the context for the evening with a reminder of the Science Museumís ambitious plans for a new mathematics gallery, made possible by the generosity of the David and Claudia Harding Foundation. By combining the curation of David Rooney, the creativity of Zaha Hadid Architects and the museum’s beautiful maths collection, Jean predicted a gallery that would delight all, including the ‘intrepid and maths-loving Lisa Simpson’.

The event has inspired a wide range of media interest, on the importance of Lisa as a mathematical role model, the links between mathematics and comedy, along with mentions on Radio 4′s Loose Ends and Radio 1′s Nick Grimshaw Show.

All clips from The Simpsons and Futurama were kindly provided by Twentieth Century Fox Television.

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

Bringing Maths to Life at the Science Museum

Today, we announced an ambitious new mathematics gallery that will open in 2016.

Our new gallery will be designed by the world-renowned Zaha Hadid Architects, who also designed the stunning Aquatics Centre used in the 2012 Olympics in London, and has been made possible by the largest individual donation ever made to the museum, an unprecedented £5 million gift from David and Claudia Harding.

Dame Zaha Hadid, David and Claudia Harding, and Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, joined our Director, Ian Blatchford, and the gallery’s curator, David Rooney, to announce the news this morning.

David Harding, Dame Zaha Hadid, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Ian Blatchford and Claudia Harding (L-R) announcing the new Maths Gallery.

David Harding, Dame Zaha Hadid, the Rt Hon Sajid Javid MP, Ian Blatchford and Claudia Harding (L-R) announcing the new Maths Gallery.

Ian Blatchford, the Science Museum’s Director, explained his ambition was ‘to deliver the world’s foremost gallery of mathematics both in its collection and its design.’ Dame Hadid described how mathematics, in particular the modelling of turbulence around an aircraft, had inspired the design of the new gallery and she recalled her first visit to the Science Museum, aged 10, describing it as ‘extremely fascinating’.

Maths is too often perceived as a dry and complex, but the new gallery will tell stories that place mathematics at the heart of our lives, exploring how mathematicians, their tools and ideas, have helped to shape the modern world.

The stories told in the gallery will span 400 years of science and mathematics, from the Renaissance to the present day, with objects ranging from intriguing hand-held mathematical instruments to a 1929 experimental aircraft.

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery featuring the Handley Page aircraft. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

A view of the new Science Museum Mathematics Gallery featuring the Handley Page aircraft. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects

The Handley Page aircraft is one of the star objects – a 1929 British experimental aircraft with a 12m wingspan, which will be suspended from the gallery ceiling. With civilian air travel expanding rapidly in the 1920s, aircraft manufacturers around the world needed a better understanding of the mathematics of aerodynamics and material stress.

This experimental aircraft, made in Britain by Handley Page and building on aerodynamic work carried out during WWI, was designed to take off and land slowly and steeply without stalling, vital at a time when urban airfields were often shrouded in fog.

A plan diagram of the Mathematics Gallery. The gallery layout follows the Handley Page aeroplane's turbulence field. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects.

A plan diagram of the Mathematics Gallery. The gallery layout follows the Handley Page aeroplane’s turbulence field. Credit: Zaha Hadid Architects.

Welcoming the £5 million donation, our Director Ian Blatchford described it as a “game-changing gift to the museum”. David Harding has a long-standing relationship with the Science Museum, most recently supporting the museum’s Collider exhibition and tour, the new Information Age gallery and our educational work.

The David and Claudia Harding Mathematics Gallery will open in 2016, and will be curated by David Rooney, who also curated our award-winning Codebreaker exhibition about the life of Alan Turing. The gallery is part of the Science Museum’s Masterplan, which will transform around a third of the museum over the next five years.

X&Y at MOSI’s 1830 Warehouse for the Manchester Science Festival

X&Y, a new show from mathematician Marcus du Sautoy and Complicite actress Victoria Gould, starts at the Manchester Science Festival next week.

Blending maths with theatre, it explores big questions about our universe – is it infinite? Does it have an edge? With a stark and simple set, X&Y creates its own little ‘universe’ inside a brightly lit cube, making it perfect for unconventional ‘pop-up’ theatre spaces.  For its London run at the Science Museum earlier this month, it was performed in a converted empty exhibition gallery.

X&Y at the Science Museum. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

X&Y at the Science Museum. Photo: Benjamin Ealovega

The Manchester Science Festival takes place in venues across Greater Manchester from 24 October – 3 November and X&Y is taking up residence for 5 days at MOSI’s stunning Grade 1 listed 1830 Warehouse at Liverpool Road Station.

1830 Warehouse

Liverpool Road Station was the Manchester terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first purpose-built passenger and goods railway. The original coach offices (passenger station), warehouse and intervening viaduct survive, making this the world’s oldest railway station. All four buildings and the two viaducts are listed in recognition of their historic and architectural importance. When British Rail closed the station in 1975, the two oldest buildings were in a very poor state of repair. Since then the whole site has been carefully restored.

The aptly named ‘1830 Warehouse’ was built in 1830 and it was the world’s first railway warehouse. Earlier railways, which mainly carried coal, did not need warehousing but the success of the Railway’s goods services created an immediate need for more storage.

1830 Warehouse

On 3 April 1830, the Liverpool & Manchester Railway Company placed a notice in the Manchester Guardian inviting tenders for the construction of five brick warehouses. This description is misleading as the resulting building was actually one warehouse divided into five bays. Five firms submitted tenders ranging in cost from £12,000 to £14,000 (approx. £1.16 million to £1.35 million today). 

The second lowest bidder, David Bellhouse Jnr, gained the contract. He had taken over his father’s building and contracting business in about 1820. His father, David Bellhouse Snr., was also a leading local timber merchant. These family business connections were valuable because the appointed contractor was responsible for procuring the necessary building materials, other than bricks, which were supplied by the L&MR Company. The stated completion date was 15 August 1830, giving less than four months for construction. The schedule was tough, but Bellhouse managed it. The demanding schedule was doubtless one of the reasons why the 1830 Warehouse has a timber frame rather than a fireproof frame of brick and iron. A timber frame was faster to fabricate and assemble.

The 1830 Warehouse was used for the storage of a variety of goods. Cotton, one of the L&MR’s most important cargoes, was only stored there until two Cotton Stores were completed in 1831.

Two stock books found in the warehouse in 1991 reveal the type of goods stored there in 1885 and 1905. They list a wide range of goods including various meats, bananas, chemicals such as caustic soda and bleach, clog blocks and bottles. Oyster shells and cockleshells were found in the building, suggesting that it was also used for storing shellfish.

As the Manchester Science Festival takes over MOSI and other venues for 10 days, the 1830 Warehouse will be the home of Marcus du Sautoy and Victoria Gould and the creative team for X&Y. 

Find out more about the 1830 Warehouse at MOSI here.

Find out more about X&Y at the Manchester Science Festival from 30 October – 3 November here.

Take a look at some of the production shots from London

Extracts from this blog from The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester

Win tickets to X&Y

Next week the Science Museum welcomes mathematics professor Marcus du Sautoy and actress-mathematician Victoria Gould for X&Y – playful new theatre that explores some of the biggest questions about our universe using maths.

To celebrate, we’ve teamed up with HegartyMaths.com to run a competition to win a pair of tickets to the show. It runs from 10 – 16 October at the Science Museum.

To enter, simply retweet this. Good luck!

Marcus du Sautoy

A word from HegartyMaths

HegartyMaths is set up and created by Colin Hegarty and Brian Arnold, two full time London Maths teachers.  We love maths and the creativity and joy that comes from solving maths problems.  At the same time we understand that skill in Maths is also, in effect, a life differentiator and we want to help students raise their standards in the discipline in order to open up their life chances.  Our mission is to provide free, high quality maths tuition via the website to students who need a bit of extra suport in Maths.  All our work is free so that pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds can, in effect, benefit from what is like free personal maths tuition.  We have made over 700 videos covering Key Stage 3 Maths, GCSE Maths and A-Level Maths.

2013 Annual Director’s Dinner

Roger Highfield, Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group, writes about the 2013 Director’s Annual Dinner held in the Museum. 

The Science Museum unveiled the next major stage in its development last night at the Director’s Annual Dinner, with the help of Cédric Villani, winner of the most prestigious prize in mathematics, the Fields Medal.

The Museum already plans to launch a £4 million platform for photography, art and science, called Media Space this autumn; a £1 million immersive show about particle physics, Collider, in November; and a £16 million Information Age gallery in 2014, as the world’s foremost celebration of information and communication technologies.

Director's Annual Dinner at the Science Museum

Guests at the Director’s Annual Dinner hear the Museum’s plans for development. Image: Science Museum

Ian Blatchford, Director, announced at the annual dinner that the next major project would be to deliver a maths gallery on the second floor of the museum in 2016, quoting Churchill, who famously described how his Harrow master ‘convinced me that mathematics was not a hopeless bog of nonsense, and that there were meanings and rhythms behind the comical hieroglyphics.’

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomes guests to the Annual Dinner

Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, welcomes guests to the Annual Dinner. Image: Science Museum

The project will draw on the expertise of Jim Bennett, previously director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford, and the advice of some of the country’s best popularisers of mathematics, Prof Marcus du Sautoy and Alex Bellos.

Guests at the Director's Dinner. Image: Science Museum

Guests at the Director’s Dinner. Image: Science Museum

Appropriately, the guest of honour and keynote speaker at the dinner was Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré (UPMC/CNRS) who was awarded the 2010 Fields Medal and is as well known for his ‘19th century poet’ look – white cravat and long hair– as his playful, inspirational approach to mathematics.

Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, addresses guests at the Directors Dinner

Cédric Villani, Director of the Institut Henri Poincaré, addresses guests at the Directors Dinner. Image: Science Museum

His lecture deftly intertwined physics, economics and geometry and he referred to the curse of mathematicians who, like in the legend of the Lady of Shallot is condemned ‘ to look at this world only through its reflection.”

Villani’s research (described in his TEDx talk above) is based on kinetic theory, which scientists use to describe a system of interacting particles such as a gas or liquid in which billions of molecules are moving in all directions.

He has extended this theory to include the long-range interactions between molecules, the second law of thermodynamics and the Boltzmann equation, which describes the behaviour of particles in a low density gas. He illustrated his talk with a picture of himself taken in the central cemetery, in Vienna, next to Ludwig Boltzmann’s grave. Because the second law of thermodynamics predicts that entropy – a measure of disorder within a system – always increases, Villani has in effect figured out was just how fast our world is falling apart.

Director Ian Blatchford (l) congratulates Lord Rees (r) on becoming a Fellow of the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Science Museum Director Ian Blatchford (l) congratulates Lord Rees (r) on becoming a Fellow of the Science Museum. Image: Science Museum

Later in the evening, Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal, was made a Science Museum Fellow in recognition of his contribution to the world of science.

The black tie event, which was addressed by the Chairman of Trustees, Dr Doug Gurr and sponsored by Champagne Bollinger, was attended by leading figures including Jim al-Khalili, broadcaster and physicist; Evan Davis, Presenter of Dragons’ Den and the Today programme; entrepreneur and model Lily Cole; Science Minister David Willetts MP; Imran Khan, CEO of the British Science Association; Anthony Geffen, CEO & Executive Producer of Atlantic Productions; Daisy Goodwin, television producer, poetry anthologist and novelist; Deborah Bull, Executive Director, King’s Cultural Institute; Simon Singh, author; Fiona Fox, Director of the Science Media Centre; Sarah Sands, Editor of the Evening Standard; and Professor of Genetics, Steve Jones.

The 2013 Director's Annual Dinner was sponsored by Champagne Bollinger. Image: Science Museum

The 2013 Director’s Annual Dinner was sponsored by Champagne Bollinger. Image: Science Museum