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Life in the City Is Essentially One Giant Math Problem
Jerry Adler / Smithsonian Magazine / May 2013
Experts in the emerging field of quantitative urbanism believe that many aspects of modern cities can be reduced to mathematical formulas
Glen Whitney stands at a point on the surface of the Earth, north latitude 40.742087, west longitude 73.988242, which is near the center of Madison Square Park, in New York City. Behind him is the city’s newest museum, the Museum of Mathematics, which Whitney, a former Wall Street trader, founded and now runs as executive director. He is facing one of New York’s landmarks, the Flatiron Building, which got its name because its wedge- like shape reminded people of a clothes iron. Whitney observes that from this perspective you can’t tell that the building, following the shape of its block, is actually a right triangle—a shape that would be useless for pressing clothes—although the models sold in souvenir shops represent it in idealized form as an isosceles, with equal angles at the base. People want to see things as symmetrical, he muses. He points to the building’s narrow prow, whose outline corresponds to the acute angle at which Broadway crosses Fifth Avenue.
“The cross street here is 23rd Street,” Whitney says, “and if you measure the angle at the building’s point, it is close to 23 degrees, which also happens to be approximately the angle of inclination of the Earth’s axis of rotation.”
“That’s remarkable,” he is told.
“Not really. It’s coincidence.” He adds that, twice each year, a few weeks on either side of the summer solstice, the setting sun shines directly down the rows of Manhattan’s numbered streets, a phenomenon sometimes called “Manhattanhenge.” Those particular dates don’t have any special significance, either, except as one more example of how the very bricks and stones of the city illustrate the principles of the highest product of the human intellect, which is math.