Figuring the Feminine: The Great Crochet Reef

What better homage to the disappearing Great Barrier Reef than to crochet a new one? At least that's what The Institute for Figuring's (IFF) Christine and Margaret Wertheim appear to have thought four years ago when they started their project. The reef is composed of hyperbolic crocheted and for a history of hyperbolic crochet, you needn't sweep aside the brain cobwebs for high school memories of geometry class. Quite simply Euclid, father of geometry put forth five axioms: four of which were easily proved and one of which was not. This fifth axiom has to do with the nature of parallel lines and how they interact. If you have one line and then draw one point outside of it, Euclid said that only one other line could pass through that point and NOT intersect with the first line. Well there's just no way to prove that is true. Geometers tried for 2000 years and pretty much threw in the towel around the 19th Century. It turns out that infinite hyperbolic lines can pass through the point (remember that bell shaped line from geometry class?), still be straight lines, and not intersect the other straight line. The type of space defined by these lines bends away from itself and creates the sort of lettuce leafy structures we see in nature.
Um, so where's the crochet come in you ask. Well no one could build a durable model to demonstrate this idea until 1997 when Daina Tiamina, a mathematician at Cornell University finally figured out how to make a model of hyperbolic space that allows us to hold onto and tactilely explore the properties of this unique geometry. The method she used was crochet.
Voila! Somehow when you look at the image to the right, all the stuff above makes much more visual sense!
And while it's interesting is that feminine handicraft solved a very old problem in a very male-dominated field, it's more interesting that this is the mathematical method by which the Wertheim sisters are building the Great Crochet Reef.
Henri PoincarĂ©, one of science's great philosophers once wrote that no geometry could be considered more true than any other, only more convenient. To which Daina Tiamina says that "Euclidean geometry is convenient, but that doesn’t mean it’s what nature uses." By using hyperbolic forms, the Wertheim sisters' crochet reef not only accurately represents the natural way in which the real Great Barrier Reef was created, it also hints that the the solution to the Great Barrier Reef's degradation might have a solution as revolutionary to the environmental movement as hyperbolic geometry was to mathematics.

Currently part of the reef are being exhibited at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburg, PA. We here in L.A. have to wait until 2008 when the whole reef is exhibited at LACE.


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