“Crochet Coral Reef” Melds Art and Math to Highlight Plight of Living Reefs

A new book by Margaret and Christine Wertheim shows how art and math can go hand-in-hand in an explosion of colorful crocheted coral reefs.

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Margaret Wertheim in the Föhr Reef, Museum Kunst der Westküste, Föhr, Germany, 2012.

Brainless and full of color, coral reefs make up the vital ecosystems where approximately a quarter of the oceans’ species live. But these vibrant structures are at risk due to warming seas and a number of other challenges that also face many marine environments across the world.

To raise awareness of the threats posed to reefs, Australian-born, Los Angeles-based twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim created a traveling art project called Crochet Coral Reef, where as many as 8,000 participants from around the world have created corals through the medium of crochet. It was a project of the Institute of Figuring, a nonprofit they founded in 2003 to “contribute to the public understanding of scientific and mathematical themes” through “material play.”

It’s an undertaking that melds both of their backgrounds– Margaret is a longtime science writer, and Christine is an artist who teaches at CalArts — and it involves concepts as complicated-sounding as hyperbolic geometry, yet is as approachable as many a DIY project.

The idea that the coral form could be mimicked through crochet was first discovered by Dr. Daina Taimina back in 1997, and it is a construct that the pair have run with. Over three million people have seen their reef project in person at a variety of institutions including The Smithsonian and Hayward Gallery in London.

Now they have published a book, Crochet Coral Reef, documenting the ideas and manifestations of the project, that came to life after a successful Kickstarter campaign and now is available for purchase on their website.

DnA spoke to Margaret Wertheim about how this project came about, why this project is a coup for women in science and why we humans are “all corals now.”

Detail of the Irish Satellite Reef, at the Science Gallery, Trinity College, Dublin. 2010. Tube worm with hyperbolic frills by Irene Lundgaard and spiral horns by Una Morrison.

DnA: How did this project get off the ground?

MW: The project has roots in science, mathematics and art. When you look at a coral reef or you see pictures of a reef you immediately recognize what it is because all of the structures. The corals, the kelps and the sponges– they all have these frilly, crenellated structures, and they’re actually a biological manifestation of a kind of geometry called hyperbolic geometry.

One reason we started doing the project is to engage people with mathematics through handicraft, and we also did it as a way to draw attention to the plight of environments all over the world, and coral reefs in particular, that are being devastated by global warming. So the project was to demonstrate that global warming isn’t just a problem in the future; it’s here and now. And we thought it would be a wonderful thing to do a community project that enabled people to construct something very beautiful while also giving a mysterious forum for being able to discuss the most critical environmental issue of our age.

Margaret Wertheim drawing in the Mathematical Chapel of the Reefs, Rubbish and Reason exhibition at the Alyce do Roulet Williamson Gallery, Art Center College of Design, 2011.

DnA: So you just mentioned how this project is about partially about drumming up interest in mathematics, and to the average person when they look at a coral reef they see various spontaneous-looking forms. Where is the math connection? 

MW: All of those frilly forms, they may look free-flowing, but behind them is a mathematical structure. The mathematical structure is called hyperbolic geometry. Now at school we learn a kind of geometry call Euclidean geometry which is the geometry of a flat plane, like a sheet of paper. Hyperbolic geometry, although it’s realized in very ancient organisms like corals and also in the frilly vegetables like lettuces and kales, human mathematicians only discovered it about two hundred years ago.

Even though corals and brainless organisms like kelp and sea sponges have been making hyperbolic structures for hundreds of millions of years, it’s actually very difficult for humans to model this geometry and by far the best way to do it is with crochet. That was a discovery made by a mathematician at Cornell University, Dr. Daina Taimina, and she only discovered that in 1997. What she did was give mathematicians the way of visualizing this enigmatic structure, and having a visual model of something can really help people comprehend what it is they’re trying to understand.

The Toxic Reef at the the Sant Ocean Hall, in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Washington D.C., 2011.

DnA: Why is crochet uniquely suited to this to these forms. Why not knitting? Why not needlepoint or any other handicraft?

MW: Well in fact you can you can make hyperbolic structures with all different kinds of handicrafts. So the very first one Dr. Daina Taimina made was with knitting. So you can knit them, and you can crochet them and you can do that with all sorts of handicrafts including weaving– any handicraft that enables you to go along and increase the number of stitches, enables you to make these. You just follow a simple algorithm.

So you can see immediately that you could do it with all kinds of handicrafts, but crochet by far is the easiest mechanically to make it happen.

DnA: So do you just give participants an algorithm and have them create corals?

MW: If you do the formula that Dr. Taimina discovered, you get mathematically perfect corals, but nothing in nature is mathematically perfect. So we said, let’s not be perfect about it, let’s be wonky. What happens then is you get ones that are not mathematically perfect, and they immediately look a lot more organic and living. For the last ten years that we’ve been doing this project, we’ve been experimenting with ways to warp the code, to make it not mathematically perfect, to make it more diverse and more complex. And in that sense the project sort of follows the history of the evolution of life on Earth– by making wonky, mathematically impure and therefore ever more diverse and complex shapes, what we’ve been able to do is simulate a diverse ecology.

DnA: I think when people see long strings of code, if you’re not familiar with coding, I think one of the first reactions is, whoa, I don’t understand this. But with the Crochet Coral Reef it communicates on an immediate sensory level. Was that your goal?

MW: Yes, and one of the things that’s very important to us about the project, is that it takes what is traditionally a very abstract kind of knowledge, and instead of presenting it in textbook equations, it presents it in the context of material objects, these crochet models. They are material objects that anyone can make. I can teach anyone to crochet in ten minutes, and within an hour or two anyone could make one of these models. It’s all materially embodied, and it’s visually beautiful. It brings to the fore something that’s very important about mathematics, that a lot of non-mathematicians don’t know, and that’s that mathematics is a very beautiful subject. In a sense it’s a kind of symbolic poetry.

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The bleached section of the People’s Reef, an amalgamation of the Chicago Satellite Reef and the New York Satellite Reef – at Track 16 Gallery, Los Angeles, 2009.

DnA: You’ve talked about how you want people to participate in Crochet Coral Reef, because it’s a beautiful project that takes on a complex topic. One thing that I find really interesting is that you’ve created a bleached reef and that’s sort of a representation of a coral reef becoming less beautiful because of global warming. Why did you decide to create a bleached reef?

MW: We decided to create a bleached reef, because coral bleaching is a sign that corals are stressed and sick. Corals are a very sensitive organism, and when they get stressed by environmental disturbances such as pollution or warming of the ocean, what happens is they expel the symbiotic organisms living within them, and it’s those symbiotic organisms that actually give corals a lot of their colors. What happens is that they immediately lose a lot of a color and look bleached, and if the environmental conditions return to being good, the microorganisms come back, and the corals return to full color. But if they don’t come back, the corals literally starve to death and become bleached white.

We thought this was a very poetic way of drawing attention to the problem of reefs, so we’ve actually made two bleached reefs. One is called the Bleached Reef and one is the Bleached Bone Reef, which represent the two stages of coral bleaching, one when the coral is sick and the other when the coral actually died. The irony of this is that actually those two reefs are some of our most elegant and beautiful and most popular reefs, because they are very beautiful objects, but they are meant to be calling attention to a very serious problem.

DnA: Who typically gets involved in this project?

MW: It’s a project primarily being done by women, and there are very very few science communication projects that are specifically aimed at women, and it’s not that we exclude men, it’s just that the vast majority of the people who have participated in this project are women. I think one of the reasons that it’s been so successful is because it enables women to engage with high-powered mathematical and scientific issues within the context of doing a handicraft, that is traditionally feminine, that that they love and find pleasurable. I think that this project suggests that craft can be used as a really profound tool for conveying mathematical concepts.

Beaded hyperbolic jellyfish by Vonda N. McIntyre. McIntyre is the author many classic works of feminist science fiction, and the The Sun and the Moon, a fantasy about a friendship between a courtier of Louis XIV and a sea monster. The book has recently been made into a major feature film, set for release in 2015.

DnA: One quote from your book that I thought was really interesting was “The Crochet Coral Reef Project offers a metaphor, take it or leave it- we are all corals now.” What do you mean by that? 

MW: If you look at a head of coral, a head of coral is actually built by a community of thousands of genetically identical coral polyps, each of which is a tiny, insignificant little organism which on its own can really achieve very little. But when thousands of them get together they form a head of coral, and when thousands of heads of coral come together, they form a reef. When millions of them get together they form something like the Great Barrier Reef.

We see this project as a metaphor to say that we humans are also like coral polyps. Individually we are tiny insignificant organisms that cannot achieve world change on our own, but collectively together we can do extraordinary things. And I think this is a metaphor that is very, very important to our thinking about how to face the questions of global warming. It seems to me that in our individuality, no individuals can solve the problems of global warming and ocean acidification.

DnA: It’s really fascinating, because it hits another issue in terms of the way education is being marketed these days and how STEM is being touted as the route to success. And you’re kind of showing that there’s a really good pairing in math and science and the arts. 

MW: Yes. I have been a science writer and communicators for thirty years. One of the reasons I started doing this project is because as a science journalist, I became very, very aware that a big majority of the people who consume science communication are men. So, I really wanted to do some program that conveyed the beauty of science and mathematics that would resonate with women. And so this crochet reef project really comes out of a very long commitment that I have to trying to find ways to engage women about science and math.

I think it raises some very deep questions in our society. Why is it that so much science communication is so unappealing to women, and why can’t we do better?

DnA: When did you and your sister realize that your backgrounds could coalesce around this project?

MW: Both Christine and I grew up doing handicraft, our mother taught us to do handicrafts when we were very young children, in fact I can’t remember a time when we didn’t do handicrafts.

Our mother encouraged us to be equally interested in both mathematics and science, but she also taught us to knit and sew, and I believe that handicraft is a really powerful and wonderful constructive creative tool that can actually be used to convey some very deep and beautiful scientific ideas.

It has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations. If anyone told me almost ten years ago when Christy and I sat down and started crocheting corals in front of watching Xena Warrior Princess that we would still be doing it almost 10 years later, I would have laughed.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.