Wertheim in her garden, with a small part of the reef (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Wertheim in her garden, with a small part of the reef (Photo by Tessie Borden)

Crochet As An Act of Mathematics to Save the Environment

Updated May 11 — Science writer Margaret Wertheim is used to pondering complexities of science, mathematics and philosophy, in the process making them accessible to the everyday reader. But even she seems a little awed by all the conceptual layers of her latest project, one which has taken her beyond her comfort zone and into spheres of community activism, art curating and supercharged crafting.

Margaret Wertheim, in a playful moment at her home in Highland Park (Photo by Tessie Borden)
Margaret Wertheim, in a playful moment at her home in Highland Park (Photo by Tessie Borden)

It’s called the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, and it grew out of living-​room discussions with twin sister and art curator Christine Wertheim in 2005 about the fate of the planet. From there, the concept of an art project that could incorporate environmental science and mathematical principles began to develop. And as institutions heard about it and asked to exhibit it, they also asked the Wertheims for workshops to let their surrounding communities get involved.

This big idea had begun to spread. Maybe out of control. There are now community crochet coral reefs in Chicago, New York, London, Los Angeles, Brisbane, and other cities. The Wertheims’ reef was on display in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History until last week.

“When you get 500 or 600 people contributing to a work, it produces a different quality than what any small group or even one person could do,” Wertheim said ahead of her talk at the Autry on Saturday, April 30, which had an attendance of 101. “It’s an absolutely amazing thing.”

The Autry has honored Margaret and Christine Wertheim, who have established the Institute For Figuring to explore the artistic dimensions of science and mathematics, with its first $15,000 Theo Westenberger grant for women of excellence. Her talk in the Wells Fargo Theater, in which she examines how the science, the crochet and the activism intersect, is part of the ceremony to celebrate it.

The toxic reef, part of Margaret and Christine Wertheim's Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project (Photo courtesy Margaret Wertheim)
The toxic reef, part of Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef project (Photo courtesy Margaret Wertheim)

So what IS the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef? Think of it as equal parts higher geometry, sheer artistry, community organizing, and awareness of the plight of coral reefs around the world.

Still confused? Well, let’s see. It is a coral reef. Made out of crocheted wool. Begun by the Wertheims but now involving literally hundreds of crochet knitters around the world. For the purpose of modeling a geometric phenomenon that no other medium could effectively describe, hyperbolic geometry. And also, by the way, drawing attention to the effect of global warming on reefs, which turn out to be our climactic coal mine canaries.

“It is the totality that people respond to,” Wertheim said. “It is a community art work, but it relates to the major ecological issues of our time.”

A jellyfish-like shape that is part of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef (Photo courtesy Margaret Wertheim)
A jellyfish-​like shape that is part of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef (Photo courtesy Margaret Wertheim)

Then there’s all the math stuff. Which might be scary to most of us who are not mathematically inclined. But Wertheim’s specialty is making science and math intelligible to the rest of us by showing its connections to popular culture. She says scientists used to believe that the hyperbolic geometric structures embodied by coral reefs could not be modeled in computers or in any other way, and part of how mathematicians study and solve problems in nature is by figuring out how to model them. And the process of crocheting revealed the algorithm, the small number of steps, that could reproduce these shapes.

“Hyperbolic space is another kind of geometry,” Wertheim said. “It’s an alternative to flat geometry and spherical geometry and it was a kind of geometry that was discovered in the early 19th Century.”

Mathematicians realized with that discovery that geometry was a much more complex field, with a large, previously unexamined class of objects. Something similar happened about a century later, when they discovered fractals.

“At the same time you’re doing this lovely handywork yourself, you’re actually engaging in learning about some pretty important mathematical concepts,” Wertheim said. “Again and again when I give workshops, we hear directly from the women who come how important it is to them that this is a project that links handicraft to mathematics and science. I think one of the reasons the project has been so successful is because it has these deep mathematical and scientific resonances, as well as the community art factors.”

Then there’s the whole aspect of how the project empowers women’s work, something that Wertheim never anticipated.

“It gives them a sense, I think, that — I don’t know how to put it any other way — they’re not just knitting,” she said. “For a lot of women, we do our handicraft, our little domestic endeavors, and husbands or children or friends think, ‘Aww, you know, Mum’s just doing a little bit of knitting. This is just Mum’s little thing.’ Women’s handicraft has not been it’s not regarded in the same category as a lot of male aesthetic projects. and so for these women to know that what they’re doing here is actually linked to the mathematics that underlies general relativity, and this is the mathematics that will ultimately tell us about the structure of the universe, it’s immensely empowering.“She talks of participants who comment to her about how impressed their husbands and sons are with what they are doing. On the other hand, Wertheim also talks about the reaction from big art institutions, used to the cult of the individual, and their occasional reluctance to credit all the creators of the work. So the Wertheims have had to educate those institutions, too.

“That’s maybe 950 names,” she said, “but hey, you know, they put in their time!”

Finally, the project took Wertheim on her own journey of discovering an entire field of endeavor with which she had had no previous experience: art curating. When they began to receive the community’s contributions to the project, they still had to figure out how to make them work in an art installation.

“It just arrived, basically, in plastic garbage bags,” she said. “What it looks like is an explosion in a woolly jungle store, and all the colors are mixed together.… So a big part of what makes this show work is that a huge amount of curation has to go on. How do you take this huge mass of floppy woolly jumpers kind of sitting limply on the floor and turn it into a sculptural installation which has drama and power and movement and aesthetic flow?”

The Wertheims are not the only honorees under the Autry’s Westenberger program. This summer, the Autry plans to select a winner for the $20,0000 Theo Westenberger Award for Artistic Excellence, awarded to a female photographer or digital artist of unusual achievement.