Blog Post 1: Story-Detective Visit to the Institut Mittag-Leffler, Stockholm

10000 Mistakes, Theatre 15/07/2015

institute visitRonan McMahon and I made a visit last week that thrilled us to bits: We went to the prestigious Institut Mittag-Leffler in Stockholm, to research the 19th Century mathematician Henri Poincaré. We are interested in making a project/show, for children, inspired by Poincaré. It’s called “10,000 Mistakes”, and it celebrates the necessity of mistake-making, in maths, in learning, in life. Whisper it: It’s ok to make mistakes. 

The story in brief: Henri Poincaré made a big mistake in his calculations, in an entry to a prestigious competition run by the King Oscar II of Sweden.  This was 1888. Poincaré won the competition, and everyone said he was fantastic. But then, the error was discovered. Poincaré was really embarrassed. He had to recall all the copies of his calculations that had been sent out into the world, and he had to fix the problem, and then use all his prize money (and much more money) to pay for the re-publication of the calculations. It really was mortifying. But… When Poincaré looked closely at his error, and tried to understand it, he made a new discovery about the fundamental nature of the universe. No less. This discovery was the beginning of what we now call, “Chaos Theory”.

And as for our visit: Well, Ronan and I made a few mistakes trying to get out of Stockholm city to find the Institut Mittag-Leffler. I lost my bus ticket, then we misinterpreted the bus timetables twice, so had to wait around in a bus station, then we got the wrong-ish bus…so we were pretty darn happy with ourselves when we reached the Institute. Institute librarian Mikael Rågstedt very kindly showed us around the beautiful building and told us about the work that is done there. Even more excitingly, Mikael showed us the original manuscript which Poincaré submitted to the competition, scribed painstakingly by his wife Louise, who was also his secretary. This is the very, the actual manuscript that contained the famous error. (When the error was identified, Poincaré edited and republished the calculations.)

I cannot describe how nerdishly happy Ronan and I were to see, and touch, the manuscript, and hear the cool story of how it came to Mikael’s attention after being thought lost for decades. Mikael also explained to us a lot about Poincaré’s story, his work, the significance of his error and subsequent discovery, and Chaos Theory. And Mikael gave us tea and biscuits. Thank you, Mikael!

Visit to Mittag-Leffler Institute162824 (1)

Visit to Mittag-Leffler Institute162129 (1)

Clearly, one of our challenges, with making a show about Poincaré for children, is to describe his work and his discovery in a way that’s clear, accurate and properly fascinating for them. So, we’ve got to start by researching the maths, and knowing exactly what we’re talking about ourselves :)

More about the Institut Mittag-Leffler: