Fun By the Numbers: Get ready to spend a day in Digitopolis


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By Anthony Stoeckert
   Whether you’re a mathematical wiz, or someone who runs in fear at the sight of a fraction, the Cotsen Children’s Library has an event designed to make mathematics fun for all.
   ”A Day in Digitopolis” will offer demonstrations, hands-on projects, games and more, all designed to showcase the fun and exciting aspects of math. It will take place April 9 at the Frick Chemistry Building on the Princeton University campus.
   Digitopolis is one of two cities in the classic children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth, written by Norton Juster. Mr. Juster will be interviewed on the university campus, live in front of an audience, on April 30 for an edition of Cotsen’s “The Bibliofiles” podcast. To mark the occasion, Dana Sheridan, the library’s education and outreach coordinator, wanted to organize an event devoted to the book.
   In The Phantom Tollbooth, Milo is a bored kid who uses a tollbooth to enter the Kingdom of Wisdom, which has two lands, Dictionopolis and Digitopolis.
   Dictionopolis is a land of words, Digitopolis is all about numbers. And while events organized by Cotsen usually related to words, Ms. Sheridan saw in the book an opportunity for an event all about math.
   ”While it would have been easy for us to do Dictionopolis, I thought Digitopolis would be more of a challenge,” Ms. Sheridan says. “And I don’t see as much math programming popping up, and especially not math programs aimed at younger kids. So I thought, Let’s do a ‘Day in Digitopolis’ and let’s throw our special flare on it to make it explorative and unusual and hands-on.
   Some of the day’s activities will be directly tied to the book, such as a project organized by the Arts Council of Princeton. In the book, Milo discovers that numbers come from mines, so the arts council will host a “mine” where kids can dig out a number and decorate it with jewels and such.
   Another element taken directly from the book is the character of the Mathamagician, who will be performed by Brent Ferguson, a member of the math faculty at the Lawrenceville School.
   ”He will be in the robe and hat that the Mathamagician is wearing, and you can ask him whatever crazy math question you can possibly come up with and he’s going to answer it,” Ms. Sheridan says.
   Collaborating with Cotsen on the event is Bedtime Math, which was founded by Laura Overdeck, a 1991 graduate of Princeton University. Bedtime Math ( is a non-profit devoted to helping kids with math via apps and kits to help after-school math clubs.
   ”They’re bringing some of their really fun activities,” Ms. Sheridan says. “There’s a glow-in-the-dark geometry room, there’s a big beach ball pyramid, and they’re also going to do spy ciphers.”
   Other participants will be Emile Oshima, a Princeton student who will be doing abacus races. “He’s so fast on an abacus, he can beat a calculator,” Ms. Sheridan says.
   No math event in Princeton would be complete without a touch of Einstein, and the legend will be at a Day in Digitopolis to meet and talk with people. (It actually will be Bill Agress playing Einstein.) Representatives from the Historical Society of Princeton will be on hand to share information about Einstein.
   JaZams toy store will be bringing math-related games. Students from the university’s Mathematics Club will be sharing math problems and brainteasers.
   Matt Elson, an artist from Los Angeles, will be sharing two of his creations known as “Infinity Boxes.”
   ”They’re environments that take the idea of infinity and add an interactive component to it, and they’re just so beautiful,” Ms. Sheridan says. “You can gaze inside these infinity boxes.”
   There also will be a 16-foot maze with no right turns, and some projects devoted to the history of math.
   Other participants include Matt Smith and Demi Zhang, university students who use instruments to teach “musical fractions.” Princeton Chemistry Outreach will be there, as will the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, which will explore math in nature. Also helping with the math fun will be the Society of Women Engineers, and Women in Computer Science, both from the university.
   ”I don’t think I’ve ever done a math program,” Ms. Sheridan says. “For younger kids, you might find some math at a science event, but this is pure math.”
   Ms. Sheridan says the idea of a math event came about because of The Phantom Tollbooth, adding that discussing the idea with Ms. Overdeck was a big step toward putting on A Day in Digitopolis.
   ”Let me be quite frank, I am severely learning disabled in math,” she says.
The Cotsen Children’s Library will present A Day in Digitopolis at the Frick Chemistry Building on the Princeton University campus, April 9, 1-4 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, go to

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