There are few people who can make a direct connection between higher maths, environmental activism, global warming and crochet, but Margaret Wertheim is one of them. Wertheim, an award-winning journalist, curator and the author of several books on the cultural history of science, is coming to the capital to give a talk at the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute (NYUADI). Margaret and her twin sister Christine, an artist and academic, are co-founders of the Institute for Figuring, a Los Angeles-based organisation dedicated to expanding the public’s understanding of complex mathematical and scientific concepts and the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef (HCCR), a project that may look and sound whimsical but one which is actually rooted in hard scientific and mathematical fact.
The sisters came up with the idea for a crocheted reef in 2005 at a time when the plight of reefs had begun to make international headlines. Coral reefs are some of the planet’s richest ecosystems, supporting several million species, but they face catastrophic collapse in the face of higher temperatures and the increased maritime acidity that results from higher oceanic concentrations of CO2.
“If the atmospheric concentration of CO2 goes to 480ppm,” Margaret Wertheim explains, “acidity will be so high that it will change the chemistry of the ocean and many reef organisms will not be able to form their bony structures.”
Scientists now believe that corals are more endangered than they had previously imagined and that reef reformation may now stop as early as 2030. The oceans are already one degree warmer than they were a century ago and scientists predict even higher temperatures for the end of the century. Nobody knows if corals can withstand this kind of temperature change.
In making the HCCR, the Wertheims have not only kick-started a project that raises awareness about the environment, they have created a medium that allows the public to engage with complex scientific and mathematical ideas.
“Most people are used to thinking of science and mathematics as things that you have to learn by reading textbooks and writing down equations,” Wertheim says. “What we’re interested in is the notion that people can engage with ideas by literally doing and making things for themselves.”
The need to replicate the complex, frilly and crenellated structures that occur naturally in sponges, sea slugs, corals and nudibanks made the use of wool and crochet a logical necessity for the Wertheim’s coral reefs. The formation of these organisms is determined by hyperbolic geometry, the geometry of negative numbers and negative curves, a phenomenon that was only discovered by mathematicians in the 19th century.
It wasn’t until 1997, however, that Daina Taimina, a mathematician at Cornell University, discovered a method for materially modelling hyperbolic geometry using the traditional art of crochet. It was while crocheting one of Taimina’s hyperbolic forms that Christine Wertheim first had the idea of crocheted coral.
“We never thought it would be this big,” Margaret Wertheim confesses. “I thought there would be a few dozen people who would join us in this rather madcap synthesis of maths, science, art and environmentalism, but it’s really surprised us and here we are, eight years later, with one of the biggest participatory art and science projects in the world and one of the biggest community art projects of all time.”
Since then, the Wertheim’s have been invited to exhibit their reefs in art and science museums around the world such as the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, the Hayward Gallery in London, the Science Gallery in Dublin and the Chicago Cultural Centre. More than three million visitors have seen the resulting exhibitions and the project has been called “the Aids quilt of global warming”.
Thanks to the efforts of more than 7,000 voluntary participants, the HCCR has “gone viral” and more than 25 international “satellite reefs” now exist. Groups working independently of the Wertheims’ Institute for Figuring have created reefs in places such as Chicago, New York, Dublin, London, Melbourne, Sydney and Fukuoka and now Abu Dhabi is about to join that list.
Margaret Wertheim’s forthcoming talk will form the finale to more than a week of reef-related lectures and workshops that have been organised by NYUADI. The theme of her lecture, We Are All Corals Now, will be the need for us to all to start thinking and behaving more like coral reefs.
“Individually, our actions are minuscule and insignificant, but when we act collectively, we can achieve amazing things. Just as billions of coral polyps build the Great Barrier Reef … humans acting in concert can do extraordinary things. We have achieved the extraordinarily powerful action of warming our planet. Working together, we could achieve the extraordinarily powerful action of reversing that.”
A series of community workshops set to follow will introduce volunteers to the ideas, patterns and techniques required for the construction of Abu Dhabi’s very own “Satellite Reef”. A year later, the results will go on display; a new public artwork made for the capital by its inhabitants.
Wertheim believes that the HCCR not only provides proof of what individuals are capable of when they engage in collective action, but also functions as a powerful metaphor for understanding the evolution of life on earth. If something as simple as the HCCR can produce what it has in just a decade, she argues, then it becomes far easier to understand how billions of years of evolution could produce the astonishing variety and complexity of life that we find on the Earth.
“It is genuinely evolutionary in the sense that everybody starts off with the same, very simple, mathematically perfect algorithm, but once people start to deviate from the mathematics, the HCCR starts to look like a real reef.
“No single individual could create a coral installation, but collectively, people do create these amazing installations and I think that demonstrates in a very powerful, visceral and beautiful way the power that we have when we act collectively.”
However, Wertheim is the first to admit that it will take more than a community crochet to get humanity to make the kind of changes necessary to save the planet’s coral reefs. “Does humanity collectively have the will to do this?” she asks rhetorically.
“That’s the big unknown question at the moment. You either throw up your hands and give up, or you try to proceed and change course. I don’t know the answer, but if you’re not at least trying to be part of the solution, you’re ipso facto capitulating to the problem.” It is clear from even the briefest of conversations that capitulation is not an option Wertheim is prepared to accept.
• We Are All Corals Now, a public lecture by Margaret Wertheim from the Institute for Figuring, takes place on Monday, September 30, at 6:30pm at the InterContinental Hotel auditorium. It is hosted by the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute. For more details visit http://nyuad.nyu.edu/
Nick Leech is a features writer at The National.