Here is Margaret talking about the project at a TED conference:
The Wertheim sisters run a "play tank" (as opposed to a think tank) in Los Angeles. Margaret is a science writer who has written about the history of math and physics. Christine is a professor of art at California Institute of the Arts. Their Institute for Figuring is dedicated to the idea that we can gain surprising insights about intellectual puzzles in math and science by actually setting aside symbols and data sets for a moment and making a model we can handle. "The conceptual enchantment," as Margaret Wertheim told the New York Times, "is open to everyone."I once asked the mathematicians why it was that mathematicians thought this structure was impossible when sea slugs have been doing it since the Silurian age. Their answer was interesting. They said, "Well I guess there aren't that many mathematicians sitting around looking at sea slugs." And that's true. …We started out, Chrissy and I and our contributors, doing the simple mathematically perfect models. But we found that when we deviated from the specific setness of the mathematical code that underlies is the simple algorithm, crochet three, increase one. When we deviated from that and made embellishments to the code, the models immediately started to look more natural. And all of our contributors, who are an amazing collection of people around the world, do their own embellishments. As it were, we have this ever evolving, crochet taxonomic tree of life. …. So this project really has taken on this inner organic life of its own. There is the totality of all the people who have come to it. And their individual visions, and their engagement with this mathematical mode. … We live in a society that completely tends to valorize symbolic forms of representation -- algebraic representations, equations, codes. We live in a society that's obsessed with presenting information in this way, teaching information in this way. But through this sort of modality, crochet, other plastic forms of play, people can be engaged with the most abstract, high powered, theoretical ideas -- the kinds of ideas that normally you have to go to university departments to study in higher mathematics, which is where I first learned about hyperbolic space. But you can do it through playing with material objects.
For more about the crochet reef, see the links above. For a different but equally interactive and evolving model of the tree of life, visit the Encyclopedia of Life online or read up on the blog of the latest New England Aquarium expedition to the Phoenix Islands to save one of the last remaining pristine reefs.