Friday, February 5, 2010

Margaret Wertheim on the Beautiful Math of Coral

I happened to see this exhibit in NYC one day while taking a stroll (it was in the Broadway windows close to the 6 train Astor stop). I remember snapping some photos because I thought it was quite lovely.

Science writer, Margaret Wertheim and her twin sister, Christine, founded the Institute for Figuring to advance the aesthetic appreciation of scientific concepts, from the natural physics of snowflakes and fractals to human constructs such as Islamic mosaics, string figures and weaving. Which brings us to this project... "crocheting coral reefs". It involved tens of thousands of hours of labor, 90% done by females. It's roots go into the fields of mathematics, marine biology, feminine handicrafts and environmental activism.

Why crochet? Organisms in coral reefs have a particular frilly crenulated structure, know as hyperbolic geometry... and the only way mathematicians know how to model this structure is through crochet. This is a fact.
I love this project for many reasons- aside from being lovely and smart, but mainly because it shows that things are never one sided, but rather multi-layered with many meanings. This project grew in response to global warming and wanting people to engage on a physical level.

I think it has and will draw attention to distressed coral reefs around the world, which are dying in droves from changing ocean saline levels, overfishing, and a myriad of threats. It displays a flavor of math that was previously almost impossible to picture. By modeling these complex equations in physical space, this technique can help mathematicians see patterns and make breakthroughs and let people engage on a physical level.

Please take 15 minutes to check out Margaret's talk. I think you will be glad you did. If for some reason the video loads slow- you can also find it HERE.

Please note: some copy was taken directly from the Ted site.

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