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Truth, Beauty, Math and Crocheting

Why your grandmother’s favorite pastime proves mathematicians are a bunch of clueless hacks.

Science writer Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister Christine are on a crusade to correct the longest-running errors of science through art. Their weapon? Crocheting.

They are the founders of the Institute For Figuring — an exploration of the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics. It’s part mathematics, part feminine handicraft, part marine biology and part environmental activism. And it also happens to be a defining pillar of our mathematical understanding of nature.

So why crocheting?

For a very scientific reason, actually: The peculiar structure typical of corals and sponges is a special form of geometry known as hyperbolic geometry, which just so happens to be the bane of mathematicians’ existence — it’s near-impossible to model on a computer, and the most accurate way mathematicians have of modeling it is through crocheting.

And even that took scientists nearly 2 centuries to figure out — until the discovery of hyperbolic geometry in the 19th century, there were only two kids of space conceivable:  Euclidean, or flat space, and spherical. But it wasn’t until 1997 that the crochet modeling method was discovered by  a mathematician at Cornell, disproving the most fundamental axiom of mathematics — Euclid’s Parallel Postulate.

So here in wool, through domestic feminine art, is the proof that the most famous postulate of mathematics is wrong.

In fact, species like sea slugs have existed for millions of years, happily violating the very principle Euclid claimed was impossible to violate — something mathematicians had previously chosen to conveniently overlook. Crocheting these structures offered not only a new model of geometric representation, but also a whole new model of thinking: This sort of non-euclidean geometry is actually the very foundation of the theory of relativity, thus the closest thing we have to an understanding of the shape of the universe.

The project began in 2005, the first year that global warming really became an issue of global concern for both the science community and the enlightened general public. Coral reefs, which are incredibly delicate organisms, are among the species most severely affected by global warming — any rise in sea temperatures causes vast bleaching events, which inevitably kill entire coral colonies.

But perhaps most fascinatingly, the project serves as a brilliant allegory for the evolution of life on earth. Originally a centralized effort by the Wertheim sisters, the IFF began to attract outside contributions from people all over the world. Today, it has evolved into a global collaboration of science-minded craft-masters, who have contributed tens of thousands of hours worth of human labor totaling thousands of coral models — a truly grassroots exploration of our collective understanding of marine biology and mathematics.

Algebraic representations, equations, codes… We live in a society that’s obsessed with presenting information in this way, teaching information in this way. But through this form of modeling, people can be engaged with the most abstract, high-power, theoretical ideas.

Werheim is particularly passionate about the play-based explorations of concepts, stressing the importance of creating “play tanks” in a society dominated by think tanks — great minds who think about the world and write grand symbolic treaties about it, but don’t engage with great ideas on the highest abstract level.

Watch Wertheim’s fantastic TED talk, where she reveals a glorious intersection of beauty and math.

Published April 24, 2009




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