The Lenny Interview: Margaret Wertheim

An interview with science journalist and educator Margaret Wertheim.

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Spanning 1,500 miles, the chain of coral heads, cays, and islands known as the Great Barrier Reef occupies as many square miles as Italy. It is Earth's largest living structure, a complex limestone lattice constructed by colonies of coral polyps that feed on algae and light. From space, it looks like an aquamarine spine that hugs the contours of Australia's eastern coast. Close up, it is a riot of color and life, hosting hundreds of thousands of species of fish, worms, mollusks, sharks, turtles, and whales.

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According to scientists, 2016 is on track to be the hottest year in history, and the high temperatures have lead to widespread coral die-offs, putting the rich ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of Earth's reefs at risk. For more than ten years, science journalist Margaret Wertheim has been raising awareness about the looming threat to corals by organizing an effort to reproduce the reef in yarn and string. With her artist twin sister Christine, she founded the Institute for Figuring, which has mobilized thousands of contributors to learn advanced mathematical concepts that allow them to knit the ample frills and plumes and pom-poms of underwater creatures. The rainbow reef they have assembled is now a traveling exhibit named Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas, which will be shown at New York's Museum of Arts and Design starting this month.

This project is just one incarnation of Wertheim's lifelong mission to engage people who wouldn't otherwise have access to or interest in learning scientific concepts. After studying physics at the University of Queensland, she worked as a science journalist, writing for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, New Scientist, the Guardian, and others, and she has published six books on the cultural history of science, most recently Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything. I got her on the phone to talk about why she thinks it's important to write about science for a mainstream audience, institutional sexism in the sciences, and how she got the idea to handicraft a great coral reef.

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Rose Lichter-Marck: Why did you decide to study physics?

Margaret Wertheim: I fell in love with math when I was about six years old. Later, I realized that physics is a way of seeing the world through math. Mathematicians consider numbers and geometric shapes as things in themselves, but physicists say, "How can math help us understand the physical, material world around us?"

As a science communicator, I want to make science and mathematics more accessible by showing the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of those fields. I'm interested in the sheer beauty that math and science embody, but also I'm trying to understand how science is shaped by wider cultural forces, and once the science is developed how it in turn shapes society.

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An obvious example of this is the shift from a geocentric cosmology to the modern heliocentric system. Medieval thinkers believed that humans were at the center of everything, including God's attention. But in the heliocentric cosmos, we're just one planet floating around one star in a vast void. These transitions in our scientific thinking have huge impacts on how we conceptualize what it means to be a human being.

RLM: Why do you think it's important to reach people who are not necessarily scientists, and specifically women, on these topics?

MW: Science plays a huge role in the practicalities of our daily lives — cell phones, medicine, pharmaceuticals, transportation — all of these things have been brought about by scientific theorizing. For that reason alone, I think it's important that a wider group of people have some understanding of science.

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The other reason is that in the modern era, since the scientific revolution, science has become the foundation of our worldview. In the past we looked to religion for our values, but now we get them, to a large degree, from science. I think it's critical that people understand what comprises that worldview. And why is understanding important particularly for women? I would simply say that women are people, too. The majority of readers of science magazines are well-off white men over 40. That's a fact. I think it's an oversight on the part of the science communication world, and I'm trying to do something about it. I believe that a huge number of people in our society are deeply interested in science, but they're just not being given the opportunity to engage with it in ways that are accessible, or even interesting, to them.

RLM: Is that belief what drove you to start the Institute for Figuring?

MW: About fifteen years ago, I got bored with science communicating and writing as it was always presented. I would come across things that I thought were fascinating, like hyperbolic crochet, which is an intersection of mathematics and women's handicrafts, and I would have trouble convincing science magazines to let me write about such things. I became more and more interested in using methodologies that are associated with the arts to reveal the beauty and the power of science. My identical twin, Christine Wertheim, is an artist and professor at the California Institute of the Arts. We've had parallel lives in art and science, and we've experienced each other's specialties vicariously. We see our fields as allied, but divided by having different discourse, different values. So we decided to start an organization with the mission to bring people into science and math by showing the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of those subjects.

We think of the IFF as a play tank, not a think tank. We want to give people access to ideas through play. That's not to say that play is in opposition to thinking; we just believe that playing with ideas and materially constructing stuff, like crocheting coral reefs and making fractals out of business cards, is in itself a form of thinking. It's amazing how many high-powered math and science ideas people absorb through our workshops. There are different ways of knowing. You can absorb concepts from textbooks, or by doing things with your hands.

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RLM: The biggest accomplishment of the IFF so far is the Crochet Coral Reef, which is just reaching its ten-year anniversary. How did that project begin?

MW: Our coral-reef project grew out of mathematics, handicraft, Marine science, collective art practice, and feminism — things that, in our society, are not often brought together. Since the nineteenth century, mathematicians have been trying to illustrate hyperbolic geometry, the underpinning of modern physics, particularly Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Euclidean geometry, which we all learn in school, describes the way lines and shapes behave in flat space, while hyperbolic geometry is a set of postulates that accounts for curved surfaces. It wasn't until 1997 that Dr. Daina Taimina at Cornell University showed you could make models of hyperbolic forms by knitting or crocheting them out of yarn. Suddenly you could hold models of this amazing mathematical structure in your hand, and you could stitch theorems onto the surface to show how basic geometric shapes behave differently in hyperbolic planes than they do in Euclidean space. It's a really powerful teaching tool.

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Christine and I learned handicrafts from our mom, so when we heard about Dr. Taimina's work, we thought it was such a groovy way to combine the loves of our lives. We started making these mathematical crochets, but there's only so much you can do if the mathematics are perfect, and one day Christine said, "I'm done making mathematically perfect ones; I'm going to make wonky ones." As soon as she started to do that, they stopped looking like models and they started to look like natural, living things. We were watching episodes of Xena: Warrior Princess, and there happened to be a few bottles of cheap champagne involved, and we had a little cluster of knitted forms sitting on our coffee table. We saw them there and said, "My gosh, it looks just like a coral reef. We could crochet a coral reef."

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When we were starting the project in 2005, scientists were finally beginning to realize that all of these big coral-bleaching events are actually caused by global warming. We're from Queensland state in Australia, where the Great Barrier Reef is located. And we joked at the time that if the Great Barrier Reef ever died out, our crochet coral reef would be something to remember it by. Now it's not a joke. Scientists are saying that the Great Barrier Reef really could die out.

RLM: Has the project changed over time?

MW: The community dimension of the project keeps getting stronger. I think that's because there's a hunger in our society to do things together. Everybody who participates in the project gets their name on the gallery wall. And the work itself is bigger, more beautiful, and more powerful for that collaboration.

Coral reefs are collective projects, too. A head of coral is made up of thousands of individual coral polyps, each an insignificant tiny little thing that could achieve little on its own, but together, thousands of coral polyps build a beautiful head of coral. Together, millions of heads of coral made the Great Barrier Reef, which is the largest living organism on planet Earth. The project parallels the thing it's emulating.

RLM: I understand that a large proportion of the people who have worked on the coral reef are women.

MW: Yes, 99.99 percent of the people who've worked on it are women, and that surprised us. We thought that if the project took off, there would be more women than men — but my guess would have been two-thirds women and one-third men.

RLM: How do you think that has affected the reception of the crochet coral reef?

MW: Although the project has foundations in mathematics and ecology and created so much awareness about one of the most important environmental issues of our time, our support comes exclusively from the art world. I've never seen a science outreach project have this kind of grassroots traction, and yet we have not been able to get a single dollar of support from any science fund. A major science foundation said to me, "Margaret, we have basically a bunch of retired physicists running our organization. I don't think I would be able to convince them that there's any real science in a bunch of women knitting." That's a quote from a man whose job it is to give away money to support innovative public science engagement, and one of the stated missions of his foundation is to encourage women into science. I tried to apply a second time, thinking, OK, when we've really proved ourselves in the national arena; maybe they'll look differently on it, and the same man said, "Don't even bother putting in an application, we won't even consider it."

I have done everything in my power to avoid this conclusion, but if that's the kind of attitude among science foundations whose job it is to support innovative science communication, then we have a very serious sexism problem. The science establishment keeps saying, "We need more people interested in science." Well, what kind of people do you want? The message that I've received is that engaging women is not as valuable as engaging men. There's an endemic sexist attitude about what constitutes science and who gets to say what real science is, and on the whole, that's men.

RLM: But at the same time, wouldn't you be bothered if someone said to you, "Women can't handle hard science; they need to access it through these other ways"?

MW: Well, to turn that around, how is science represented? Have a look at most physics textbooks: people are letting off rockets, doing stuff with cars. Now, girls can be interested in rockets and cars, too, but a lot of them aren't. These activities are not neutral. I went through my entire physics degree never seeing an example about anything that related to my life. We've gotten so used to seeing physics represented in activities that tend to have interest for men that we simply can't see it; that's why it stands out when the representation isn't stereotypically male, like handicrafts. Let's not kid ourselves that representation is devoid of context.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Rose Lichter-Marck is a writer living in Brooklyn. She also takes pictures, some of which are posted here. You can find her on Twitter.

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