Science Show with Robyn Williams

On the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s beloved Science Show with Robyn Williams, IFF director Margaret Wertheim speaks about corals, carbon and the cosmos. Thanks for a lovely interview with reporter Alexandra de Blas.


American Association of Physics Teachers Award

IFF Director Margaret Wertheim has been awarded the 2016 Klopsteg Memorial Lecture Award by the American Association of Physics Teachers. On July 18, 2016, Margaret will deliver her lecture at the AAPT’s annual meeting in Sacramento. This is the first time since 2006 the award has been given to a woman. Previous honorees include Harvard theoretical physicist Lisa Randal (2006), Lee Smolin (former director of the Perimeter Institute and the inventor of loop quantum gravity, an alternative to string theory) and Neil de Grasse Tyson (director of the Hayden Planetarium).

About the Klopsteg Award
Named for Paul E. Klopsteg, a former President and long-time member of AAPT, the Klopsteg Memorial Lecture Award recognizes outstanding communication of the excitement of contemporary physics to the general public.


World Ocean Day


Today is World Ocean Day, and the IFF salutes marine life everywhere. This picture shows corals growing around plastic trash on a pier at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, an elegiac reminder of the stresses these wondrous organisms are facing and the need for us all to confront our run-away use of plastic. This Fall, the IFF’s Crochet Coral Reef project will be exhibited at the Museum of Arts and Design in NY, with a specially curated focus on plastic trash and coral bleaching.


On Being a Woman in Science

Margaret Wertheim drawing hyperbolic diagrams at the "Reefs, Rubbish and Reason" exhibition, Art Center College of Design, 2012.

IFF Director Margaret Wertheim writes: “Given the many stories that have been coming out recently about sexual harassment of young women in science, I decided to write a piece about my own experiences with this. It’s out now in AEON. This is the first time I’ve publicly discussed what caused me to leave academic science. Since then I’ve spent 35 years as a science writer, author and exhibition curator, trying to find ways to make the public representation of science more sensitive to, and appealing to women. My work with the Crochet Coral Reef project results from this impulse, as did the columns I wrote for 10 years about science and technology for Australian women’s magazines such as Vogue and Elle.”


Coral Bleaching

2015_06_MIA025 (photo credit-Margaret Wertheim, IFF) copy

The “Bleached Reef” by the Institute For Figuring. Photographed at the exhibition “Night Begins the Day” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, 2015.

The world’s coral reefs are experiencing the largest bleaching episode ever recorded. Rising water temperatures are now threatening more than a third of the Earth’s reefs and coral experts say it is possible reefs may be gone in 25 years. The effects of the current El Nino (making the last 2 years the hottest on record), are being compounded by underlying global warming and other anomalous climate events. Hardest hit has been the Great Barrier Reef. During a recent aerial survey of 520 sub-reefs in its northern section, scientists at Australia’s National Coral Bleaching Task Force found that only 4 showed no sign of bleaching. More than 600 miles of the GBR’s previous glory has been turned into aquatic boneyards. [See photo essay.] “This has been the saddest research trip of my life,” says Task Force convener Professor Terry Hughes.

In this time of urgency, the IFF’s Crochet Coral Reef project remains ever-more timely; a synthesis of art and science that also calls attention to the potency of community-based action. In Fall 2016 the Crochet Coral Reef will be on exhibition at the Museum of Arts and Design in NY. Included will be our Bleached Reef, a feminine handicraft elegy to the currently unfolding environmental tragedy.

Crocheted strawberry anemones (by Margaret Wertheim) nestling in the Bleached Reef, by the Institute For Figurirng. Pictured at the Jewish Contemporary Museum, San Francisco, 2015.

Crocheted strawberry anemones (by Margaret Wertheim) nestling in the “Bleached Reef” by the Institute For Figuring. Photographed at the exhibition “Night Begins the Day: An Exploration of Space, Time and Wonder” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, 2015.


The IFF is making a fractal


Christina Simons and Jake Dotson constructing “Fractal Ruin” at the Institute For Figuring, Los Angeles, April 2016.

The IFF has begun construction on a new business card origami fractal sculpture for a forthcoming exhibition at Mass-MoCA entitled Explode Every Day: An Inquiry into the Phenomenon of Wonder. We are inspired here by the pioneering work of Dr. Jeannine Mosely, inventor of business card origami and the leading practitioner of fractal paper folding. By experimenting with Dr. Mosely’s techniques we are bringing into being an object that shimmers at the boundary of mathematics and nature, a structure whose spine is based on fractional geometric principles and whose flesh is being “grown” organically as we progress. The IFF’s previous collaboration with Dr. Mosely was the construction of giant Mosely Snowflake Sponge Fractal at the USC Libraries.


Things to do with Spheres

E8 lattice (from Wikipedia)

E8 lattice (from Wikipedia)

It’s turning into an exciting week for spheres. In a tour de force of abstract thinking, mathematicians have finally proved how to best pack spheres in 24-dimensional space. We all know this problem in 3 dimensions: What’s the best way to stack oranges? In 1611, Johannes Kepler speculated that the pyramidal stacking used by grocers was the optimal arrangement, but it took until 1998 for that to be proved. Since then mathematicians have wondered about optimal sphere-packing in higher dimensions. They know the answer for 2 and 3 dimensions, but this is a hard problem to generalize. Some years ago it was speculated that in 8 dimensions the answer could be found in the structure of a glorious object known as the E8 lattice. Now Maryna Viazovska at Humboldt University in Berlin has proved this is optimal. By extending her work, Viazovska and a colleague were also able to deduce the answer for 24 dimensions, which involves one of E8’s cousins. Nobody knows why 8 and 24 dimensions are so elegant and special. 24 dimensional sphere-packing has applications in wireless communications, particularly involving spacecraft where signals are faint and noisy, so there is a link here to the cosmos itself. The IFF is delighted by these developments: in 2009, IFF director Margaret Wertheim wrote about E8 and its cousin “the monster symmetry group” in this article for Cabinet magazine.

In other rotund news, we draw readers attention to this video demonstration of hikaru dorodango, the ancient Japanese craft of making perfect spheres out of dirt. Here, artist Bruce Gardner shows how. Mud meets math, a meticulous fusion of the mundane and the sublime.


Crochet Coral Reef turns 10

The IFF’s Crochet Coral Reef project is celebrating its 10th anniversary with the announcement of two new forthcoming exhibitions: one in Spring 2017 at the University of California, Santa Cruz; the other at a soon-to-be announced location for Fall 2016.

Over the past decade the Crochet Coral Reef project has evolved into one of the largest participatory art and science endeavors on the planet and – we are proud to say – one of the very few that specifically brings science and mathematics to women.

With its unique nexus of mathematics, handicraft, community art practice and environmentalism the Crochet Coral Reef project opens a window into STEM subjects for women around the world.

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During the past 10 years, more than two million people have visited Crochet Coral Reef exhibitions, including at the Hayward Gallery in London, Science Gallery in Dublin, Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. In 2015, the Reef was exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, alongside the Leonardo da Vinci Leicester Codex.

More than 8000 women in a dozen countries on 5 continents have participated with us in making an ever-evolving wooly archipelago of community-based Satellite Reefs. This ongoing socio-artistic happening simultaneously engages women with the foundations of geometry and the problems of climate change while calling forth their creative energies. Satellite Reefs have now been constructed in 35 cities and countries around the globe, including Chicago, New York, London, Melbourne, Germany, Latvia, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates (seen here at the NYU Abu Dhabi Institute).


Vice Chancellor Fellow

IFF director, Margaret Wertheim is currently serving as a Vice Chancellor Fellow in Science Communication at the University of Melbourne.

Her latest essay in Aeon Magazine looks at the history of how consciousness has come to be framed as a scientific problem.

Her recent essay in The Conversation pays tribute to the art and beauty of general relativity, a theory whose 100th anniversary we celebrate this year.

In the current issue of Cabinet, Margaret also has an interview with mathematician Dr. Neil Sloan about his massive and inspiring undertaking, the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. The OEIS – a kind of web-based Oxford English Dictionary for number lists – now contains more than a quarter million unique number sequences, and has been called “the most influential math website in the world.”


Guernica Interview

Guernica, the acclaimed online journal of arts and politics, has a special current issue devoted to the Boundaries of Nature.  Included, is a wide-ranging interview with IFF director Margaret Wertheim, titled At Home in the Universe. Topics discussed include: using material play to make science accessible; exploring the foundations of geometry with crochet; the realization of mathematical forms in nature; the psychology of “outsider” physics; gender bias in science outreach; and the inherently collaborative nature of scientific research.

See Guernica article here.