top of page
  • Carol Wiebe

Crochet at the Quantum Level

Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine Wertheim created a coral reef: an invocation, in crochet, to the beauty that is coral. That’s correct, they crocheted it. PHE-NO-ME-NAL. This is so spacious in its conception, so widespread in its manifestation, so inspiring in its combination of the fields of mathematics, marine biology, feminine handicraft and environmental activism, that I am left breathless.

This is crochet that made a difference.

If I had used the following: relevant crochet, or meaningful crochet, your mind would immediately have leapt to the term oxymoron. Tell me, with a straight face and no fingers curled behind your back, that I am mistaken in that assertion. However, Margaret Wertheim heard about a breakthrough in geometry involving crochet and was immediately intrigued. In 1997, a Cornell math researcher named Daina Taimina made the connection between  hyperbolic space and crochet. Margaret, being a science writer, discussed it with her sister Christine, a faculty member of the Department of Critical Studies at the California Institute for the Arts, and a piqued interest soon ballooned into a full fledged passion:

“We could crochet a coral reef,” Christine had mused, pointedly using the conditional tense while the woolly forms piled higher on our sideboard. We innocently put an announcement on the Institute For Figuring website seeking crafters to join us in this potential hyperbolic undertaking. From around the globe pictures started to arrive by email, then packages in the post. Helen Bernasconi, a former mathematics teacher and computer scientist, now sheep farmer in Bonnie Doon, Australia, sent in a fan-like form budding with hyperbolic curlicues made from wool she had sheared from her sheep, then spun and dyed herself. A Hungarian graphics designer in Liverpool, England, Ildiko Szabo, posted a shoebox of pastel-colored anemones. Heather McCarren, a PhD candidate in geoscience, mailed in a collection of tiny mercerized cotton florets. The tectonic plates of our continent shifted when Vonda McIntyre, the author of a novel about Louis XIV’s encounter with a sea monster, emailed photographs of her beaded jellyfish and flatworms.    (from the Gallery Guide Essay of  the Chicago Cultural Center)

You can see and hear Margaret relating the story of the crocheted coral reef, but I want to add a warning first. This video may cause tears to pool in your eyes, because the connection between “high math” and “lowly handicrafts” is a compelling example of the fact that it never pays to be dismissive about anything, even crochet (Of course, we crocheters have known how important this art form is all along). It may instigate a major shift in your thinking, so that you too become an environmental activist. It could push you over the edge in your art, to that place where what you have to say eclipses your personal identity and becomes “what we have to say.” Many others will then be drawn to the work that flows through you, and your life will never be the same.

With that said, be prepared to be amazed:

My favorite line in her presentation had to be:

So here, in wool, through a domestic feminine art is the proof that the most famous postulate in mathematics (Euclid’s Parallel Postulate) is wrong.

The Institute for Figuring’s crochet coral and anemone garden/Alyssa Gorelick

If your interest has now been ignited, here are more places to feed the fire:

Read Margaret’s TED profile, where we are reminded that:

It is easy to sink into the kaleidoscopic, dripping beauty of the yarn-modeled reef, but the aim of the reef project is twofold: to draw attention to distressed coral reefs around the world, dying in droves from changing ocean saline levels, overfishing, and a myriad of threats; and to display a flavor of math that was previously almost impossible to picture.

Read more about hyperbolic geometry.

The Institute For Figuring is an organization, begun by the Wertheim twins, dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics and the technical arts.

The HYPERBOLIC CROCHET CORAL REEF was shown at the Cultural Centre from October 13 – December 16, 2007.

Margaret’s photostream.

Santa Monica-Track 16 Gallery, which presented HYPERBOLIC CROCHET CORAL REEF by the INSTITUTE FOR FIGURING AND COMPANIONS (curated by Margaret and Christine Wertheim) from January 10 to February 21, 2009, stated the following reminder in its description of the exhibition:

Anyone who takes up this work can begin to develop his or her own woolly species and the project has become a kind of ongoing collective evolutionary experiment, involving women (and a few men) from all walks of life  .  .  .  .  But this collective celebration is motivated also by an ecological urgency, for coral is being devastated by global warming, agricultural run-off, urban effluent and marine pollutants. 3000 square kilometers of living reef are lost every year, nearly five times the rate of rainforest elimination. Ironically, as reefs disappear a sinister substitute is growing beneath the waves: In the north Pacific ocean the world’s plastic garbage is accumulating, fifty years of plastic trash building into a vortex twice the size of Texas and 30 meters deep. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, as it is known, is a ghastly analog to the Great Barrier Reef, an aquatic “wonder” of appalling dimensions that continues to accrete.

Track 16 displays many photos of that exhibition.

A complete list of all the fabulous contributors to the Chicago Reef.

What we are wreaking on the the coral reefs.

Read ‘Hyperbolic Crochet’ project has environmental hook from the New York Times.

Read Coral fixation from Time Out New York.

Read Want to save a coral reef? Don’t forget to bring your crochet hook from the Taipei Times.

Become involved with an international organization dedicated to coral reef preservation: The Coral Reef Alliance. This website includes a section on the Crocheted Coral Reef.

#distressedcoralreefs #InstituteForFiguring #DepartmentofCriticalStudies #CarolWiebe #DainaTaimina #hyperbolicgeometry #GreatBarrierReef #YouTube #Crochet #pollutants #MargaretWertheim #EuclidsParallelPostulate #mathematics #quantumlevelcrochet #TaipeiTimes #SantaMonica #ChristineWertheim #collectiveevolutionaryexperiment #effluent #ChicagoCulturalCenter #hyperbolicspace #TheCoralReefAlliance #NewYorkTimes #hyperboliccrochet #CaliforniaInstitutefortheArts #GreatPacificGarbagePatch #quantumlevel #track16Gallery

bottom of page