article-imageThe Institute for Figuring’s first worldwide exhibition was a giant display of a crochet coral reef system. This item is just a small representative of the reef, which is still making rounds in partner museums around the world.

On April 20th, Obscura Society LA visited a museum that is focused on making math more approachable and interactive.

The event at the Institute for Figuring was led by Field Agent, Robert Hemedes (the author of this post), and immediately upon arriving at this museum tucked away in a hidden corner of Chinatown, the Obscura Society was welcomed and encouraged to help assemble a portion of 60,000 tailored cards and transform them into Level One Menger Sponges. Not an easy concept to understand, even when you try to describe it in layman’s terms. These are first level fractals and make for very colorful and aesthetically pleasing geometric objects. The pictures that you see below are examples of the menger sponges. It was similar to constructing Legos but at a more an advanced level.

article-imageMargaret Wertheim showing how an abstract concept like fractals can be better understood and appreciated when are transformed into a hands-on exercise

After our hands on experimenting time, Margaret Wertheim, the founder of the Institute of Figuring and a renowned mathematician, provided us with an insightful lecture and demonstration on what exactly fractals are and how to conceptualize them in 3D models. We learned a wealth of material about fractals, including how they manifest in nature in various forms like the frills on lettuce and ferns, the way our lungs are designed, and coral reef systems. Perhaps the most popular application of fractals today is computer animation. 

article-imageObscura Society LA participants building Level One Menger sponges.

A creative display of a Level One Menger sponge created from specially made business cards.

The Level One Menger sponges can be transformed into a variety of shapes based on the creativity of their volunteer makers.

Assembled business cards creating another beautiful Level One Menger Sponge.

While it’s not a children’s museum, the Institute for Figuring does offer activities for the entire family.

Margaret Wertheim demonstrating what fractals are from concept to 3D model.

The Institute for Figuring regularly hosts demonstrations and hands on activities for their ongoing exhibits and they are all family friendly. Even if you were not able to join us on this particular field trip, we encourage you to visit them and their unique corner in LA’s Chinatown!


The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!

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