Go Figure!

hyperbolic crochetSo I think maybe I died and went to cvj heaven. Let me explain. I mentioned to you a while ago the freshman seminar entitled “The Art and Science of Seeing and the Seeing and Science of Art”, for which there was an enrollment snafu. Well, it is continuing, and on Wednesday afternoons, I sit under the trees with two students for an hour and a half (KC Cole pulled out, since it would be a ridiculous professor-student ratio otherwise) and talk about a huge spectrum of things that fall into this category, as well as some of the things that come up in the Visions and Voices series.

Last week and this week, we discussed -with illustrations- two pretty obvious topics that come up first in people minds when the words “Science” and “Art” are in the same sentence. Those two topics are Fractals, and Escher. Quite obvious as “science-meets-art” topics go (and tiresomely so sometimes) but nontheless I believe it would be neglectful of us not to explore some of the interesting and wonderful themes, images, and techniques that those topics touch upon. Escher last week, Fractals this week. It was a lot of fun. I will tell you a bit about it later, in view of the lack of time (I had a breakthrough in a little computation that I really should get back to before I have to prepare a class).

Anyway, I come away from these sessions thinking how great it is to let oneself broaden the canvas upon which one can jot down one’s reflections upon and reactions (emotional, intellectual, otherwise) to when one looks at a piece of art. The broadening I refer to means simply to include science. Either directly or indirectly. This is the tack we’ve been taking in this seminar, and so far I think we’ve been having a lot of fun and learning a lot. I’ve been reflecting on how wonderful it would be if more people, in the context of art appreciation, would allow themselves the latitude to do this. Sadly, ignorance of what science is about, and the fear of science, topics that I talk about a lot on this blog, maintain huge barriers between art and science in most people’s minds, and so there is a whole dimension of appreciation that goes unlocked as a result (not just in the obvious context of Escher, etc, but in appreciating any art form). It was especially sad to see six freshmen disappear from the enrollment on the class principally because the word “science” was inserted into the title of what they thought would be an art appreciation seminar. Well, it is still an art appreciation seminar, but those who are coming are learning to look at art, and the world around them, with new eyes, and maybe seeing a broader and/or deeper spectrum.

So I go into “What if…” mode for a while on my ride back to my office and feel a little sad that even bright young people who are on campus to learn new things are selecting themselves out of such opportunities to engage with their world because of the word “science”. Sigh.

So imagine my delight last night (having finished a seminar on fractals earlier that day, pointing out several examples of “fractal geometry” in art and nature) when and architect friend of mine* emailed me a link to an institute, right here in LA, that seems to be right on the same track I’m talking about!

It is the Institute for Figuring, (founded by science writer Margaret Wertheim) right here in LA (yay!) and you’ve got to read the stuff on their site to believe it:

The Institute For Figuring is an educational organization dedicated to enhancing the public understanding of figures and figuring techniques.

The Institute’s interests are twofold: the manifestation of figures in the world around us and the figurative technologies that humans have developed through the ages. From the physics of snowflakes and the hyperbolic geometry of sea slugs, to the mathematics of paper folding, the tiling patterns of Islamic mosaics and graphical models of the human mind, the Institute takes as its purview a complex ecology of figuring.

Unbelievable. It is as though they were at the last two seminars! It gets better…:

Menger's SpongeAmong the events on their events page, there is – get this – a Hyperbolic Cactus Garden and Hyperbolic Kelps fair at the LA County fair. Great! There’s “Crocheting the Hyperbolic Plane” (see picture above, and more pictures at this flickr site), and there’s ” Structural Considerations of the Business Card Sponge”, by Jeannine Mosely, who created the giant model of the fractal called “Menger’s Sponge”, out of business cards. Yes, business cards. There’s much more on their site (galleries, exhibitions, events… etc).

On their “about” page, they are charmingly and unashamedly really into their groove:

The Institute does not yet have a physical space, but our permanent location in the conceptual landscape is on the edge of this iconic fractal.

iff logo…at this point they show a shot of the Mandelbrot Set (they give links to explain what that is) and a zoom into the shape, showing “where they are”. It is at this point I looked back at their icon and realized what the two numbers in brackets mean. I think that they must be the coordinates in the complex plane showing where they are on the set. Ok, it’s a bit silly in the scheme of things – but why not? (It is ok to be comfortable to paly with science themes adn jokes in everyday language, and we should not be shy about doing so for fear of having the words “geek” and “nerd” poked at us. See earlier post.)

Ok. I’d better stop here. But this is really great and it has really made my day to know that people are creating such great projects out there, and right here in the city too.


*Thanks Ilaria!!

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12 Responses to Go Figure!

  1. spyder says:

    Well, this reminded me of the photo files i received today regarding the work of two Belgian designer/engineer/architects who created (with the help of their full salaried factory staff flown in from Belgium) a monumental piece of art (later blown up and burned) for Burning Man this year. Titled Uchrnoia, the piece utilizes straight pieces of wood, in fractilized patterns, to create a curving form both day and night. For information on the design team you can find them at Qunize and Milan.

  2. Bee says:

    Hi Clifford,

    thanks for this interesting post! The crotcheted stuff is really amazing. I was pretty good at crotcheting once, maybe I should pick it up again! Best,


  3. Bee says:

    Btw, while I was in Arizona, I once heard a pretty strange talk about cacti growth… well, they have enough of them around. It’s quite interesting though how much maths is in these growth patterns. See eg.

    Cactus Patterns Buckle Up

    Just thought you might be interested. Best, B.

  4. Clifford says:

    Bee! Yes… I spent a lot of my formative years crocheting too. Used to make all sorts of symmetric patterns…, etc. Occasionally have done some since… but not much available time. Miss doing that. See my comments at the beginning of the origami post , too.

    Thanks for the cacti link.



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  6. Jude says:

    It is sad when only a couple of students are in a great class. The best class I ever took in college was a Spanish literature class, taught in Spanish, to three people. The instructor integrated every subject in the best way imaginable into his instruction–art, philosophy, history, poetry, culture. Your students may easily remember your class as their best class ever.

  7. Ben says:

    That class sounds very interesting, and also reminds me of one of the stories in Richard Feynman’s collection in which he has an artist friend who thought scientists took beauty and ruined it with technical details. If memory serves, the artist used the example of a flower, and said that science ruins it by turning it into photosynthesis and other things. His response was that he felt understanding not just the flower, but the complex structure of the flower added a new dimension to the flower that made it beautiful on yet another level. I also thought of the golden ratio when I read your post. It shows up a lot in nature. Good luck with the class, and don’t worry, it may not be hugely popular this semester, but if it’s a great course word will spread.

  8. Clifford says:

    Jude, Ben, Thanks!

    Ben, the golden ratio was my “favourite number ever!!” for many years. I am/was a quasicrystal nut from their earliest days, and spent way too much time building models of three dimensional Penrose Tilings when I was an undergraduate. Wonderful.

    I am indeed planning a session on this cute little number!



  9. ioana says:


    well I’m at USc and I am a graduate student (getting my PhD in film, I know I mentioned this earlier on Asymptotia, maybe you remember) but I would gladly sign up for this freshman seminar. Unfortunately, I have to work (I am a teaching assistant for a class that meets Tue and Wed afternoon….) but seriously if by some miracle you change the schedule and move it to any day but Tue and Wed., I will register for it. The Cinema School – sorry, the School of Cinematic Arts – will pay for two units 🙂 so that I can sit under the trees with you and talk about art and physics!

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