Institute For Figuring's New Space: An Art Gallery For Math and Science Nerds

Paper models of spherical and hyperbolic space at the Institute For Figuring
Paper models of spherical and hyperbolic space at the Institute For Figuring
© IFF Archive

A new space has opened its doors in Chinatown, and this time it's not your usual funky alternative art gallery. The Institute For Figuring is a center for hands-on discovery of cool scientific and mathematical concepts, with a strong artistic bent.

Australian twin sisters Margaret Wertheim, a noted science writer, and Christine Wertheim, a poet and faculty member at Cal Arts' MFA Writing Program, founded the IFF seven years ago with the goal of creating fun, participatory projects that would engage new audiences in scientific and mathematical ideas. Instead of presenting things in a clinical manner, their projects tease out the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of physics, geometry, biology and other lines of inquiry. The IFF has operated on a pop-up basis since its creation, and this brick-and-mortar space is a new venture.

The IFF's most successful venture to date has been the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, which is inspired by many influences, including mathematician Daina Taimina's method of modeling hyperbolic geometry with crochet, the devastation of coral reefs due to global warming, and Judy Chicago's groundbreaking feminist artwork, The Dinner Party. The project, which has produced stunningly beautiful displays of coral reef-like objects, has gone viral, involving 5,000 crochet contributors and getting exhibited at museums around the world. The sisters use the reef, and the method of crocheting it, to teach geometry and environmental science to local communities where the reef has been shown. Be sure to check out Margaret's 2009 TED talk, which explains the project in fascinating detail.

I interviewed Margaret Wertheim by phone earlier this week to get a preview.

Institute For Figuring's shiny new space in Chinatown welcomes you
Institute For Figuring's shiny new space in Chinatown welcomes you
© IFF Archive

Tell us a bit about your background, and what motivated you to start the Institute For Figuring.

It initially emerged from my own work as a science writer. I was trained as a scientist, but chose to become a science journalist, so I write articles for publications like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. In fact, from 2000 to 2005, I even had a bimonthly science column at the L.A. Weekly called Quark Soup. I was quite proud of that.

Around 2003, I became frustrated with the normative forms of science communication. There was a lot going on that was not being picked up by the mainstream journals, things that were very interesting to me. So I decided to start something that I could use to communicate directly with the public about topics that I thought were great and interesting, and thus the Institute For Figuring was born. It started as a hobby, but quickly turned into a full-time activity. There are a lot of people out there who want to interact with the sciences, but don't necessarily have subscriptions to Scientific American. There is a real hunger in the public to engage.

While I went into science, my sister Christine pursued art and literature in her career, so she brings a strong aesthetic and poetic sensibility to the IFF. I think the reason for the project's success is that we each bring equal measures of expertise from our respective fields, so that art and science are equally intimately engaged. I think this is quite rare.

In terms of a propelling issue for the IFF, Christine and I believe that by engaging people in forms of material play they can learn what are usually thought of as "abstract" ideas -- things like geometry and cosmology. We see the IFF as a "play tank" where our audience can literally play with ideas. It's kindergarten for grown-ups.

A "soccer ball" model of hyperbolic space, fashioned out of paper, from a design by Keith Henderson
A "soccer ball" model of hyperbolic space, fashioned out of paper, from a design by Keith Henderson
© IFF Archive

After successfully organizing projects on a pop-up basis for seven years, why get a physical space, and why now?

Doing exhibitions in other people's spaces can be quite wonderful, but one never has complete control. Institutions always have their own framing or methodology that they apply to shows. We got our own space in order to have the freedom to do what we want, when we want. The Hyperbolic Coral Reef project has been highly successful, but it actually took a long time to go viral. Now, if we have an idea that we're keen on, we can run with it right away.

As far as the timing, I have to say that we wouldn't have been able to launch this space without the generous support of Lauren Bon's Metabolic Studio, which is a division of the Annenberg Foundation. Because of the interdisciplinary and non-categorical nature of our work, it can be difficult to apply for grants. It took a visionary funder like Lauren to get this space on its feet.

What's in your space right now?

We have a hyperbolic room, where you can cut out your own hyperbolic structures and learn about geometry. In our main exhibition space we have a show called "Physics on the Fringe," which is based on a book I recently wrote. It explores theories of physics that are being put forth by people who generally have no formal training in science. It's the science equivalent of "outsider art."

As an example, the major theory represented in the exhibition is by Jim Carter, a trailer-park owner in Enumclaw WA, who believes that all matter is made up from ring-shaped particles he calls "circlons." In his theory of Circlon Synchronicity, atoms are like a kind of subatomic chain mail. He also believes that gravity arises from the fact that matter is constantly expanding in size -- according to this idea, the earth doubles in size every 19 minutes. The force we experience as gravity is actually the upward pressure due to the expanding surface of the earth.

Diagram of amateur physicist James Carter's theory of subatomic particles
Diagram of amateur physicist James Carter's theory of subatomic particles
© IFF Archive

That's fascinating. As a scientist, what is your assessment of the quality of these theories?

It's funny that you ask that question! It's not that I believe these theories will win Nobel Prizes or be taught at Harvard -- I don't think those are the only criteria for being interested in something. These theories are simply extraordinary in their own right.

What are some of your plans for the future?

We're planning a show called "Making Space," which looks at different ways that mathematicians model space through geometry, topology, etc. It will be highly interactive with models of fractals and hyperbolic surfaces. Christine and I really want to make shows that actually engage people in construction projects, where people can make things themselves and see firsthand how they work. We're also excited about bringing in scientists and mathematicians, from L.A. and beyond, to give lectures. And, we hope to develop programs and materials that can eventually be used by schools.

The Institute For Figuring will have its official opening celebration this Saturday evening, 7-10 p.m. Regular hours are Thursday-Saturday, 12-6:30pm. 990 N. Hill St. #180, Chinatown, (323) 222-2111,

Carol Cheh blogs about LA's performance art scene at Another Righteous Transfer!. Follow her on Twitter at @righteoustrans and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts.


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