Margaret Wertheim and hyperbolic coral

by Stephanie Chasteen on May 19, 2007

I recently heard Margaret Wertheim speak — she’s a pretty famous science writer and commentator. She questioned who we are reaching when we write about science. Only 7% of the US population reads a science magazine, she says. And those people are mostly male, well-educated, and in their mid 40’s, with high income. What about everybody else?

So, she’s recently been writing about science for women’s magazines. The idea is to bring science to where people are, not to make them come to you. And women’s magazines sell well. It’s been a challenge, however, since editors want to do stories about women’s health, and she had to stick to her guns to do real science. She also had to assume the readers had no prior knowledge of science, and keep their interest. It was also very difficult to sell to advertisers, and so said it was important to get sponsorship to write these articles.

A former colleague of mine at the Exploratorium recently published an interview with Margaret. Margaret said some really gutsy things — things that I have often thought but felt they were slightly blasphemous. Like, much of theoretical physics is of no direct benefit to society, and constitutes an immoral use of public funds to satisfy the curiousity of an elite group. She also suggests that science journalists are often a “cheer squad” for science, instead of critically questioning its use and fundamental principles. We shouldn’t dogmatically believe in science any more than we would religion.

Coral ReefMargaret also been working on some crocheting projects with Daina Taimina. They’ve been crocheting hyperbolic geometries, a mathematical structure that has been really hard to visualize before. A lot of marine creatures use hyperbolic geometries because they maximize surface area (which is important for a lot of biological things.) So, they also undertook a project to crochet a beautiful coral reef. You can see that and other projects at the Institute for Figuring, which is the original source for the image above.

{ 1 comment }

pann May 24, 2007 at 1:03 am

That’s a really inspired thought: bringing science to someone besides the elite.

Kids (myself included, as I recall) often question what the value of math or of science is to life, and ask why bother studying it if they are “never going to use it.”

If science journalists aren’t using their science backgrounds to examine critically the science that they report on, who will?

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