Tribune Print Share Text

Defying math— and saving the world

Riderwood craftswomen create hyperbolic coral reef

Created date

November 23rd, 2010

With a skilled twist of a crochet needle, Riderwood craftswomen are accomplishing what mathematicians previously thought was impossible a physical recreation of a hyperbolic coral reef. Their work will join thousands of others at The Smithsonian s National Museum of Natural History s Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef exhibit from October 16 to April 24, 2011.

Scientific principles

Throughout the ocean, diverse forms of kelps, corals, and sea slugs merge together to form a hyperbolic geometric pattern known as a coral reef. Mathematicians long believed this type of geometry was impossible to represent physically, even though it has existed within nature for hundreds of millions of years. It was not until 1997 that Dr. Daina Taimina, a mathematician from Cornell University, discovered that by continually adding stitches in a precise repeating pattern she could create three-dimensional models of hyperbolic geometry. For the first time, mathematicians could hold the theorem in their hands.

Changing the world

With this knowledge, two Australian sisters concerned about the effects of global warming and pollutants on the Great Barrier Reefs, Margaret and Christine Wertheim, garnered worldwide attention undertaking a project to crochet a woolen reef. Like the reefs themselves, the project took on a life of its own with similar projects developing in Chicago, New York, London, Melbourne, Dublin, and Capetown. In fact, it is believed that the Hyperbolic Coral Reef project may be the largest community art project in the world.

Making a difference

Riderwood s participation in the new Smithsonian exhibit provides community members the opportunity to share their skills and increase awareness about the fate of the corals. This a truly unique project because it is interesting to both environmentalists as well as creative people, says Riderwood s Martha Vayhinger, who organized the Riderwood effort. Mitze Brown, Helen Helm, Lillian Hearl, and Margaret Hays are extremely gifted at crochet, and I knew they would make beautiful contributions to the exhibit. When I first learned about the project, I Googled it and realized it was something I really wanted to be a part of, says Helm. We used patterns that the Hyperbolic Coral Reef project supplied online. It was a lot of fun and something I d like to do again.

Natural diversity

Riderwood s contributions run the gamut in color, size, and material, just like the actual reefs. Lillian Hearl even created a stunning reef out of old paper bags from the grocery store. We made a real effort to use materials that we already had, says Mitze Brown. By using leftover yarn we created a kaleidoscope of different colors. One of the most fun parts of the project was watching the coral take shape quickly, says Helm. Typically crocheting is a slow process, but in this case we could create certain corals in a few hours or one evening.

Lasting impact

Originally hoping to create 20 crocheted corals for the exhibit, the Riderwood women created an amazing 60 pieces. Their work has prompted an increased awareness of the coral reefs among their friends within the Riderwood community. We would love everyone to learn more and hope to take a bus trip down to the Smithsonian to see the exhibit together, says Vayhinger. I think it will be amazing to see all the corals together and, more importantly, to increase awareness about the endangered coral. We all thought this was a great cause worth putting time and effort into, says Brown. And it just shows how we all, in our own way, can make a difference.