Formula for happiness: Artists design a formula for the 21st century

‘Design a formula for the 21st century’ – that was the directive from the Swiss art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist to a selection of the world’s greatest creative thinkers. The result? A series of witty, playful reflections on modern life. Words by Simon Usborne

Einstein was famously fond of the formula. During the summer of 1905, while carrying out his duties at a Swiss patent office, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist crafted what would become the most celebrated equation in history. E = mc², his proof that an object's mass depends on its energy, was a formula of such startling simplicity that Einstein wondered whether "the Lord might be laughing ... and leading me around by the nose". The Lord did not laugh, and Einstein's place in history was assured, but his interest in order extended beyond the realms of science. In a more playful mood, he is said to have penned a formula for success: "If A is success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut."

The desire to formulate the seemingly unformulatable – to crystallise esoteric concepts such as success into single equations – has occupied the thoughts of countless other thinkers, but perhaps nobody more than Hans Ulrich Obrist. The eminent curator and co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery in London, has spent 15 years commissioning formulae from some of the biggest names in fields as diverse as mathematics and sociology, including Richard Dawkins, Damien Hirst and Yoko Ono. His brief was as concise as the most pleasing equation: "Make a formula for the 21st Century". It flummoxed as many people as it fascinated but soon the contributions came flooding in.

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Obrist has now published more than 100 of his favourite formulae in Formulas For Now. They range from the fun to the fundamental, via the unintelligible and, in many cases, illegible – and many do away with traditional formats in favour of diagrams, recipes, manuscripts and manifestos. The variety has delighted Obrist and the offering that tickled him most came from Richard Hamilton, the renowned painter and pioneer of pop art. Hamilton's formula, 02 + I - 8 = p x (fa)3, where O is "the ball" and I is "the prick", follows his limerick: "A Wrangler of Trinity Hall, had the most mathematical ball. The square of its weight, plus his prick minus eight, equalled Pi times the cube of fuck all." "I love all the formulas in the book," Obrist says, "but I find the combination of art, maths and humour in this one irresistible."

The formula that first inspired Obrist was rather more vital. In an interview with a 100-year-old Albert Hoffman, the first man to synthesise LSD, the late Swiss scientist scrawled the formula for the psychedelic drug on the back of a napkin. "I found it fascinating that the life of this man could be summarised in this formula," Obrist says, "and that an invention with so many social repercussions could be encapsulated on a napkin."

Obrist used his contacts in the art world and beyond to invite others to offer their own formulae and the project quickly snowballed. "Whenever one arrived by e-mail I printed it out and pinned it on the wall. Little by little, it took over my life – they were everywhere." If nothing else, publishing the book was a way to liberate the walls of Obrist's study, but the curator turned collector is hungry for more. "This is something I want to grow over many years," he says. "I hope it will go online and become a forum for anyone to submit ideas." What about his own formula? "That's my big unrealised project – despite being inspired by so many people, I still haven't found my own answer. Perhaps I'll put it in volume two."

' Formulas For Now' by Hans Ulrich Obrist is published by Thames & Hudson, £12.95 (hardback). To order a copy at a special price (including postage & packing) call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897