“Do You Fold?” – Episode One of My Afternoon at The Institute for Figuring in L.A. with Physicist Margaret Wertheim and Other New Acquaintances

Institute For Figuring - Colorful Doorway
Institute For Figuring – Colorful Doorway

I’d no idea what to expect when I entered the Institute For Figuring (as in mathematical) after locating it in-between The Chinese Unity Association of Greater Los Angeles and The Empress Pavilion, in the midst of Los Angeles’ Chinatown.  I was a little nervous. But if we don’t try those nerve rattling things in the world, life would be pretty boring. At least that is what I have told myself for as long as I can remember. And probably why, when anyone asks what is my favorite quote of all time, I always cite Eleanor Roosevelt’s:

“We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face . . . we must do that which we think we cannot.”

I was a bit early, and there did not appear to be anyone else in the building. Gallery I guess I should call it. A gallery of very colorful and visually enticing mathematically conceived paper art and needlework. More about that in a bit.  Then Margaret Wertheim was suddenly standing in front of me.

It was a little awkward. Here was this physicist I had heard speak about amateur  physicists, and a book she had written about these outsiders with homegrown theories of the universe, Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything,  at a Caltech Skeptics meeting, what? a year or two prior, and me, an artist, writer, new media, whatever it is I am . . . And we are standing in this empty gallery, except for all the vivid trigonometrical art on the walls. And I am wondering just how early I am and should I have stopped in one of the plentiful neighborhood restaurants for some chicken wings rather than barging in ahead of the appointed workshop start time.

Nor did I have much idea what this Institute for Figuring was about, since it was my best artist friend Joe up in San Francisco who went online and found out about it after I told him about the interesting lecture by the rarity, a woman, scientist at Caltech. And it was Joe who told me I needed to go to scout out this “fascinating sounding place.”

Joe is better at thinking to look things up than I am. You might remember from my last post that it was he who checked out the identity of the group who hacked this blog of mine last month. I just stared at their stupid signature and my way gone web site blog and wept.  But Joe headed for an Internet search engine and emailed back to let me know it was an infamous middle eastern hacking group. (Not to be too hard on myself – I did manage to get the site back up and harden coded it against future jerk black hat hackers.)

After her Caltech lecture, it had not occurred to me to look up Margaret Wertheim, either. But Joe did – and called to let me know not only about this Institute, but about a fascinating art project she was doing with her twin sister, Christine Wertheim, involving the crocheting of the entire underwater coral reef.

And when I finally took Joe’s advice and looked up the Institute for Figuring online, I saw they were having a Saturday, open to the public, workshop in origami business card folding and animating.

It was Joe then who had said, “Well, of course you will go, it sounds right up your alley!”

Whichever alley he was referring to I am not quite sure, because I have had zero experience with origami in my life.

And, truth be told, I was not expecting to run into Margaret Wertheim there. I had assumed that she would have some staff running workshops at this place on week-ends.

But there she was, and there I was, and as I said, it was a little awkward at first in the empty and quiet gallery, which reminds me that I might suggest to Margaret some day that we artists usually play music while we work, for that is really what she is learning to do is to be an artist. And I was early, and she was not quite set up yet. And anyway, the first words out of Margaret’s mouth did nothing to soothe my jitters.

Margaret, after politely introducing herself and telling me she was not quite set up yet, asked me,

Do you fold?”

I want you readers to imagine a very pregnant and uncomfortable pause here. One of those stagnant air, time-stood-still, hold your breath pauses that seem to last an eternity but in fact have durations in the <=  3 second range.

There is absolutely no point in me writing this blog if I am not absolutely honest. At least that is one of my beliefs about what a writer should be. I am supposed to be honest and tell you all those things most people are afraid to say so that we all wind up recognizing ourselves in each other and realizing that we are not so different, and that we all share a common humanity, and common dreams and fears and values, and whatever else it is we share and need to know about.

Well, the honest answer is that, no, I do not fold. I have no idea what folding involves. I have never folded. I was not sure I ever would be able to fold. Stupidly, I had not thought about the fact that an origami workshop would, obviously, involve folding.

And I was suddenly imagining all the deeply intricate origami folding I had once heard some scientist talk about – who remembers when – but he was referring to the fact that they had discovered if you wanted to make something so small that you could pack it up to fly into deep space in a very small spaceship, and then unfold itself when its time came, like when it landed on Mars or an asteroid or something.

And my imagination was really taking off thinking about how maybe this workshop was really for doctoral students in origami folding, and I was kind of cursing Joe for telling me I “belonged” here, and my palms were starting to sweat, and I had to honestly admit to Margaret Wertheim, because I am an honest person in addition to being an honest writer, even though what I really wanted to do was turn invisible and back out the door I had entered through, but knowing that would look really silly since I was already inside and stuck.

“No, I, uh, don’t fold.”


to be continued


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