Art, play and science – innovator joins the threads

Advancing Society and Culture

Notable science writer and artist Margaret Wertheim is exploring the interconnections between arts, maths and science for her Deakin PhD.

A passion for communicating the wonder of science has taken Australian Margaret Wertheim around the world and to the pinnacle of science writing and art curation over her 30-year career. After working on seven continents, including Antarctica, she has returned to spend some time in Melbourne, to study for her PhD at Deakin University.

Ms Wertheim’s six books include “The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace,” a ground-breaking exploration of the history of Western concepts of space from Dante to the Internet, and “Physics on the Fringe,” about the scientific equivalent of “outsider art”. She has also written for the “New York Times”, “Los Angeles Times,” “The Guardian,” “New Scientist”, “Washington Post” and many other publications.

“When I began studying science (physics, maths and computing), I thought I would be a research scientist, but I felt that science and mathematics are enchanted activities. They offer a beautiful way of seeing the world and I wanted to give other people access to these fields.”
Margaret Wertheim
Margaret Wertheim

A significant moment in her career occurred when Ms Wertheim and her artist twin sister Christine founded the Institute For Figuring (IFF), a Los Angeles-based organisation devoted to the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics, in 2003.

As a means of raising environmental awareness and encouraging community art, the sisters created the “Crochet Coral Reef,” the largest participatory science-and-art endeavour in the world, which they have continued to expand over the past 10 years.

The “Crochet Coral Reef” has engaged almost 10,000 people in a dozen countries, including the USA, UK, Germany, Latvia, Ireland and Australia. It features hundreds of colourful “hyperbolic” crocheted entities such as sea slugs, kelp and anemones and is described by the IFF as an “on-going evolutionary experiment in which the worldwide community of Reefers brings into being an ever-evolving crochet ‘tree of life.’”

Seen by over 2.5 million people, the project has been shown at the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), Science Gallery (Dublin), the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington D.C.), Sydney and Melbourne, and continues to be exhibited around the world.

For her PhD, Ms Wertheim will analyse the theoretical implications of the coral reef project and the unique ways that it lies at the interface of science, art, craft, community practice and the environment.

“The project aligns with trends in humanities, arts and science and the understanding that cognition is an embodied thing that involves not just the brain, but material processes,” she noted.

“A fundamental principle of the IFF is the value of play in engaging adults with science and maths. The IFF is like a kindergarten for grown-ups. People want to play with maths and science. They are hungering to, if given access in ways that are pleasurable. Maths can be fun, beautiful and enjoyable.

“We are inviting audiences to play with ideas in ways that are intellectually rigorous and aesthetically aware. The IFF can be conceived of as a ‘play tank’ – a new kind of practice for exploring creative engagement with topics ranging from geometry and topology, to physics, computation, and biological form.”

As an artist and science communicator working to raise awareness about climate change and reef degradation, Ms Wertheim argues that it “won’t be a handful of genius individuals or scientists who will make the difference, but many people working together”.

“One of the metaphors of the coral reef project is that an individual coral polyp can’t do very much on its own, but together, they have built the Barrier Reef – the largest coral reef ecosystem in the world,” she said.

“Through the coral reef project we have learnt that humility matters. A small number of individuals can’t change the world, but millions of us can, if we modestly change our habits.”

At Deakin, Ms Wertheim will be supervised by Associate Professor Jondi Keane from the Motion.Lab Strategic Research Centre (SRC) and Professor Russell Tytler from the Research for Educational Impact SRC. She met both researchers at a Deakin conference in 2015, organised by Associate Professor Keane.

“I thought he was wonderful on every level, especially in his research and artistic practice,” she said of Associate Professor Keane. “Russell Tytler also has very interesting things to say. Their research aligns closely with my interests.”

• A seminar by Margaret Wertheim, entitled “The Poetic Enchantments of Science,” will be held at Deakin Downtown on April 21, 2-4pm. Register online by 17 April.

Image credit: “Crochet Coral Forest” by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring. Photo courtesy, Museum of Arts and Design, NY 2016.