The Institute for Figuring, a nomadic entity since its inception in 2003, has new headquarters in Chinatown: a cozy, thoughtfully appointed exhibition space that gives friendly form to a slippery bundle of concepts.
Founded by Margaret Wertheim, a science writer, and her sister Christine, a poet, as a venue for exploring “the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and engineering,” the IFF is best known for its Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project, an increasingly global community art initiative that encourages the crocheting of reef-like forms according to principles of hyperbolic geometry. (There are several prize examples on display in the back room of the Chinatown space.)
It has also mounted exhibitions, in L.A. and elsewhere, relating to fractals, plastic refuse, the origins of kindergarten, and the author of an obscure notation system of formal logic — all characterized, like the reef project, by an incongruous balance of sophisticated scientific language on the one hand, and a democratic enthusiasm for craft on the other.
This interest in the relationship — or, more often, the tension — between complexity and accessibility lies at the heart of the first exhibition in the new space, “Physics on the Fringe.” Based on a recently published book of the same name by Margaret — her third exploring the cultural history of physics — it is a fascinating exploration of the scientific drive as embodied by those who go at it alone, developing their theories with little to no formal training, well outside the bounds of the scientific community.