Turns Out Teen Didn't Exactly Catch A Math Error In Golden Ratio At Boston's Museum Of Science

It turns out a 15-year-old high school student visiting Boston's Museum of Science may not have uncovered a math error in the golden ratio after all.

Virginia resident Joseph Rosenfeld was visiting the museum on a recent family trip when he saw something that appeared wrong with the equation displayed in a 34-year-old exhibit.

Rosenfeld left a message at the desk and later received a letter from the museum's exhibit content developer, Alana Parkes, informing him the equation would be corrected and that the mistake had been there for a "very long time" without being noticed.

But the museum said in a statement Tuesday that it turns out both Rosenfeld and the exhibit were correct. Here's the statement:

The Museum of Science is thrilled at Handley High School sophomore Joseph Rosenfeld's enthusiasm about math and our Mathematica exhibit. And it's not at all surprising that this enterprising student noticed the minus signs because the way the Museum presents the Golden Ratio in its exhibit is in fact the less common — but no less accurate — way to present it. It's exciting that people around the country are talking about math and science and that, in the process, we learned something too.

Joseph had noticed minus signs in the equation where there are more commonly plus signs.

The difference in the two ways the equation can be presented, according to the museum, "is the difference between dividing the short side [of a golden triangle] by the long side or the long side by the short side."

Below is the full text of Parkes' letter to Rosenfeld:

Dear Joseph Rosenfeld,

Thank you for taking the time to leave your feedback after your recent visit to the Museum of Science, Boston. You are right that the formula for the Golden Ratio is incorrect. We will be changing the – sign to a + sign on the three places it appears if we can manage to do it without damaging the original.

You may already know that the exhibit was originally developed in the 1960s by Charles and Ray Eames. (Do look them up if you don't already know them, they did some fabulous stuff, particularly their "Powers of Ten" video.) Partly because they are so famous, an unusual thing about Mathematica is that the whole exhibition is considered an artifact. This means that decisions about everything in the exhibition requires both Curatorial and Content Development consent (and most things can't be changed at all). It also means that this mistake has been there for a very long time.

Thank you for your attention to detail and for your interest in the Museum of Science.

I expect you are math fan. If so, you may be interested to know that there will be a lot of great math in the new Science Behind Pixar exhibit opening next week and here until January. I hope you can make it back to see it. And please let me know if you catch any other mistakes!


Alana Parkes
Exhibit Content Developer

This article was originally published on July 07, 2015.


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