By Catherine Wagley
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By Amanda Lewis
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Margaret and Christine Wertheim are two good things about Los Angeles. Founders of the Institute for Figuring (IFF), a kind of rogue physics laboratory established in 2003, they work out of their home in Highland Park on projects conceived to illuminate the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics for the general public.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1958, and raised in Brisbane, the Wertheim twins showed an aptitude for science from an early age. Christine earned a Ph.D. in philosophy, language and literature at Middlesex University, and spent 20 years in England, nine of them teaching at Goldsmiths, where she helped set up a master’s program in critical theory. During the years Christine was in England, Margaret earned degrees in pure and applied physics, mathematics and computing, and on graduating she began her ongoing career as a science writer. She moved to L.A. in 1991, and has subsequently worked for newspapers (including the Weekly, where she wrote the column Quark Soup for five years), radio and television. In 2001 Christine decided it was time to leave England and was hired by the critical studies department at CalArts. Thus, the sisters found themselves living in the same city, and the seeds of the IFF were planted.
In 2005 the IFF embarked on the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef. Described as the “Aids Quilt of global warming,” the work was conceived to heighten awareness of the environmental crisis threatening the Great Barrier Reef, located off the coast of northeastern Australia. The world’s biggest structure made by living organisms, the Great Barrier Reef covers an area of 133,000 square miles and can be seen from outer space. Climate change is taking a severe toll on the reef, and is affecting available habitat of much of the sea life there.
The Crochet Reef took root when Margaret learned that hyperbolic space could be modeled in crochet by increasing the number of stitches in each row. Hyperbolic forms appear throughout the natural world — in lettuce leaves and coral reefs, for example — but for years mathematicians had been stymied in their quest to reproduce them. Crochet was the surprising solution, a discovery made in 1997 by Dr. Daina Taimina of Cornell University. The Crochet Reefmimics the Great Barrier Reef in that both comprise a network of unique sub-reefs that are organized according to color. At this point the Crochet Reef has traveled to two continents, been exhibited throughout the U.S., and involved the efforts of hundreds of contributors.
The Wertheims consider the Crochet Reef to be mostly complete and have shifted their attention to the Toxic Reef, a kind of evil twin to the Crochet Reef. Initiated in response to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a mass of plastic debris located in the north Pacific that’s twice the size of Texas and 30 meters deep, the Toxic Reef is made of yarn and plastic trash.
L.A. WEEKLY: What prompted you to form the IFF?
MARGARET WERTHEIM: One reason I became involved with physics and mathematics is because I thought they were beautiful. I wanted to present science in ways that reveal that beauty, but I found that difficult to do within the confines of the mainstream science world, which can be very conservative. I believed it could be done, however, and I wanted a framework to do it. Chrissie has the skills to frame something that occupies a zone between science and the realm of aesthetics, and her years of teaching critical theory were crucial to the conceptualization of the IFF. However, the IFF was not conceived as an art project.
Is the science community threatened by the kind of creative thinking the IFF espouses?
MARGARET: When we began the Reef, we assumed all the support would come from the science world, that we’d be invited to show at science museums, and that one day the art world might glance our way. It’s been a completely opposite reaction. The art world immediately saw the value of the project, while the science world showed no interest whatsoever until recently. The Smithsonian just opened a new hall of ocean science, and we’ve been invited to discuss the possibility of showing the Reef there in 2010, which is an important year for marine science — the results of a 10-year survey of marine life will be presented then. This is the biggest survey of marine life that’s ever been mounted, and thousands of scientists from 150 countries have been involved. By 2010, the Reef will have been around for five years, so it’s taken the science world that long to come to the project. I can only theorize as to why that’s been the case.
How did you first conceive of the Reef?
MARGARET: In 2005 there began to be a lot of discussion in the science press about how global warming was affecting coral reefs. When we were growing up, every 10 years or so the Great Barrier Reef would undergo what’s referred to as a bleaching event, which means that great sections of the reef go white because the reef is stressed. Over the past 15 years, bleaching events have become more devastating and frequent, and at this point, 30 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has been seriously affected. Reefs are disappearing much faster than rainforests, and if we’re going to stop them disappearing entirely, we have to stop putting so much CO2 in the atmosphere.