Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim is a writer, artist and curator whose work focuses on relations between science and the wider cultural landscape. She is the author of six books, including Pythagoras Trousers, an acclaimed history of physics; The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, an exploration of concepts of space from Dante to the Internet; and Physics on the Fringe, a sociological study of “outsider science” – a term she coined. She has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Guardian, TLS, Washington Post, Aeon, Cabinet and many others.

Wertheim is the founder of the Institute For Figuring, a Los Angeles-based practice, created with her twin-sister Christine, devoted to “the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics.” Through the IFF, she has designed art & science exhibits for galleries and museums worldwide including the Hayward Gallery (London), Art Center College of Design (Pasadena), Santa Monica Museum of Art (Los Angeles), and Mass MoCA (MA, USA). At the core of this practice is the concept of material play and a belief that abstract ideas can often be embodied in physical activities. By inviting audiences to play with ideas, the IFF offers a radical approach to science engagement at once intellectually rigorous and aesthetically aware.

Paradigmatic of this interdisciplinary practice is the Wertheim sisters’ Crochet Coral Reef, the largest participatory art & science endeavor in the world. Through an unlikely nexus of mathematics, marine biology, handicraft and collaborative art practice, the Crochet Coral Reef offers a powerful framework for community engagement around reef degradation and climate change. The project has been exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), Science Gallery (Dublin), Deutsches Museum (Munich), Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Hayward Gallery (London), NYU Abu Dhabi, the Smithsonian, and elsewhere. Actively engaging thousands of citizen-participants in a dozen countries – the USA, UK, Germany, Latvia, and Australia among them – the Crochet Reef has been hailed by Lawrence Weschler as “the AIDS quilt of global warming.” Donna Haraway called it “powerful, polymorphous, terrifying, and inspiring stitchery,” while LA Times critic Christopher Knight wrote: “absurd and socially useful, these are rare works of art.” Margaret’s Reef TED talk has been viewed more than a million times and translated into 22 languages.

Throughout her career, Wertheim has been a pioneer in engaging audiences about science through uncanonical channels and methodologies. For ten years in her native Australia she wrote science columns for women’s magazines such as Vogue and Elle, and may be the only journalist to have held such a position. For ABC Australia she conceived and wrote a six-part television science series (Catalyst) aimed at teenage girls that won awards around the globe. Her writing is included in Best American Science Writing (2003), Best Australian Science Writing (2014, 2016), and Best Writing on Mathematics (2018, forthcoming). In 2004 she was the US National Science Foundation’s Visiting Journalist to Antarctica. Wertheim has won the Print Journalism Award from the American Institute of Biological Sciences (2006); Australia’s Scientia Medal (2017); and the American Association of Physics Teachers award for science communication (2016) – the first woman to gain this honor in 10 years.

In 2012, Wertheim served as USC’s inaugural Discovery Fellow, where she spearheaded a campus-wide art and science project to build a giant model of a fractal out of 50,000 business cards. In 2015 she was a Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne. She has spoken at more than 150 universities, colleges, museums, and conferences, including Harvard, Tufts, Rutgers, University of Cape Town, University of Oslo, University of Sydney, NYU Abu Dhabi, Princeton Theological Seminary, Walker Arts Center, National Gallery of Victoria (Melbourne, Australia), and the Hayward Gallery (London). She has been a keynote speaker at the Aspen Design Conference, the Australian Institute of Architects conference, and the Topology Series at the Tate Modern.

Margaret has `worked professionally on all seven continents and stood on the South Pole.