Monday, November 2, 2009

The Curious Tactile and Conceptual Enchantment

I'm late to this party, because the crochet coral reef, brainchild of sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, has become something of a YouTube phenomenon. Since it began as a  project in L.A. in 2005 to recreate the Great Barrier Reef in wool, the crocheted reef has spawned sister reefs around the world, works of communal art combing hyperbolic forms, non-Euclidean geometry, grass-roots environmental activism, and feminine handicraft. I can't recall a case of science meeting art with such outre, outsize, and instantly captivating results. When I first saw these images, I gasped at the astonishing profusion of sponges, sea urchins, corals, anemones, and nudibranchs, knitted by girls and women from around the world, in forms  ever evolving, just like the real thing.

Here is Margaret talking about the project at a TED conference:

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.
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."

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.


  1. I watched the video of Margaret Wertheim's talk and found it exciting on many levels. It's a beautiful story. For me, its multilevel significance is captured by these events:

    - that Dr. Daina Tarmina translated a hyperbolic structure into a crocheted model is a wonderful meeting of what we think of as a domestic craft and mathematics.
    - that crocheted corals have proliferated in the hands of a growing community of enthusiasts mirroring the proliferation of the organisms themselves
    - that mathematicians are seen again to have identified a living structure by exploring purely conceptual objects and relationships
    - and that, in our hands, we can explore the nature of these structures with yet another patterned activity, namely crocheting.

    It's a wonderful union of cultural and biological events - a great arrangement of mirrors. Whether you were late or not, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Yes, all those things. I hope this is grist for your own mill, too.

    I meant to include a link to a mathematical knitting site where you can make Klein bottle hats and Moebius scarves. I'll see if I can find it.

    Thanks for posting.

  3. This is cool. I hadn't heard about this yet--off to watch on YouTube.