Art meets science in Coral Reef Project

This is a story about two brilliant sisters raised in Brisbane, one of the most complicated mathematical models embodied in our universe, marine biology, feminism and crocheting. Stop me if you’ve heard it.

It’s also a story about where we come from. How as children we imagine a future for ourselves and as adults go out and grab it. Yet, when we open our hands, it’s something wilder than we ever dreamed.

It started in 1997 when mathematician Daina Taimina discovered that you could model hyperbolic space using, of all things, crochet, simply by increasing the number of stitches in each row until the fabric warps. Hyperbolic structures have bamboozled mathematicians for centuries. It’s all around us, in the frills of lettuce leaves or in rippling tutus.

Brisbane-raised, LA-based Margaret Wertheim, leading science writer, heard about Taimina’s work and picked up a crochet hook for the first time in 20 years. So did her twin Christine, lecturer in feminism and popular culture, and they produced a pile of strange little hyperbolic things. Like mad Elizabethan ruffles. “It looks like coral,” said Christine. “We could crochet a coral reef.”

They wrote about it on their website of the Institute for Figuring, which they founded to advance the aesthetic appreciation of scientific concepts. “I thought maybe a couple of dozen people might be interested,” Margaret said.

That was more than four years ago. Today the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef Project is fast becoming the biggest collaborative arts-science project in the world. Woolly reefs are being crocheted on every continent to draw attention to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef. It’s the AIDS memorial quilt of the arts-science world.

The project marks an intersection of the Wertheims’s various passions: science, mathematics, art, feminism, handicrafts and social activism. The reefs have been exhibited in museums and gallery in New York, Chicago and London. Even the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. Everybody wants a piece of it.

What is the attraction?

“This provides . . . a way into maths and science for many women. Many find it utterly empowering,” Margaret says.

Wertheim’s life work as a science communicator has been to ensure no one feels locked out of mathematics and science.

“Girls and women are so often made to feel that if they don’t get it, it’s their fault,” she says.

Margaret and Christine grew up from aged five to early 20s in a Brisbane household where their mother Barbara, as well as raising six children, was emerging as a noted feminist.

She helped open the first women’s refuges in Australia and became the Equal Opportunity Commissioner for Victoria.

“The reef project certainly brings together everything we learnt in our childhood from this amazing woman,” said Wertheim. “You know what I love about this project? The biggest category of people who come to it are, as they are perceived, middle-aged female nobodies. And I use every syllable of that carefully and lovingly.

“Middle-aged female nobodies have created something beautiful and powerful that has been put into galleries the world over. That’s the aspect of this project I am most proud of.”

Wertheim was ranked one of Australia’s top 100 public intellectuals in the early 2000s. Listen to her speaking earlier this year to hear why. She has been astounded to find herself at the centre of a global coral reef movement. The author of Pythagoras’ Trousers, a history of the relationship between physics and religion in Western culture, and The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet, has had to put aside her third book as the reef project has taken over her life.