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Winter 2008 Roundup: Coffee-Table Books

David Schoonmaker, Catherine Clabby, Fenella Saunders, Morgan Ryan, Anna Lena Phillips, Flora Taylor

Formulas for Now, edited by Hans Ulrich Obrist
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Formulas have an elegant simplicity. It’s true that they can seem like impenetrable jumbles of symbols to the uninitiated if no legend is provided. But one doesn’t have to be a mathematician to appreciate just how much information and meaning a formula can pack into a small space. Wouldn’t it be nice if shorthand expressions with similar elegance and depth were available for other pursuits?

Hans Ulrich Obrist didn’t see why not. Inspired by some “brilliant examples of theory-into-form” (Roger Penrose’s illustrations for The Road to Reality), he asked quite a few scientists, mathematicians, artists, writers and architects to send him “an equation for the twenty-first century.” That’s it, no other instruction. Formulas for Now (Thames and Hudson, 2008, $24.95) is a compilation of the eclectic responses he received.

Some respondents took the task literally: “Power of a theory = number of things it explains divided by number of things it needs to assume.” Some offered a recipe: Mix “1 tablespoon of talent, 5 drops of popularity, 1 drop of luck, 10 kilograms of discipline, 6 glasses of self-sacrifice, 3 grams of spirituality.” Others refused to address the question directly at all: “It’s more about possibilities, not solutions.”

Some of the contributions provide real information and food for thought—the essence of a successful formula. Musician Brian Eno provides a flow chart showing how the Sahel region of Africa was turned into a desert by good intentions. Artist Ryan Gander shares a proposal for a Tiffany necklace engraved with a formula (shown) which translates to “There exists only one definition for everything, everywhere at any one time.” Architect Nikolaus Hirsch provides a graph of the ranges of sensitivity of people and objects to temperature and humidity, showing that “there is no reliable relationship between human comfort and the suitable environment for an art work.” Artist Anri Sala shows how “the cricket formula,” which calculates the temperature by counting the number of cricket chirps per minute, has been modified by Gregory Chaitin to reveal how many extra cricket chirps there will be for every degree of increase in temperature due to climate change from global warming.

Formulas for Now is cleverly designed. The table of contents mimics the periodic table of elements, grouping and color-coding the authors’ initials by occupation. The picture credits page is handwritten on graph paper that has notes scrawled all over it. And the heavily bound book even provides a formula for itself: You can calculate its weight based on a formula provided on the copyright page.—Fenella Saunders

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