This fall, a different kind of coral reef will be on display in the National Museum of Natural History's Ocean Hall. It's not made out of the calcium carbonate skeletons of living coral. It's made out of wool. And acrylic, and cotton, and whatever other fibers local yarn artists get their hands on.
The exhibit is part of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, a project started by two sisters in Los Angeles who run the Institute for Figuring, an organization that educates people about math and science. In about 2003, they started making models of hyperbolic space, a kind of space with surfaces that look undulating and ruffly, like a leaf of ornamental kale or a piece of kelp. The discovery of hyperbolic geometry in the early 19th century revolutionized how mathematicians thought about space; it launched the study of non-Euclidean geometry, the kind of math that underlies general relativity. Many cosmologists think the universe's shape may be best described using hyperbolic geometry.
It's a tricky concept to visualize – unless, it turns out, you use crochet. After a few years, the sisters started varying the patterns in their crocheted work, and the pieces of frilly mathematical space piled up until, one day, they noticed it looked like a coral reef. A project was born; with contributions from volunteer crafters, the reef has been displayed in museums in London, Dublin, New York, San Francisco and others. Now it's headed for the Smithsonian.
So the other night, I went on an adventure in math, crochet and coral. About three dozen women turned up at the Yarn Spot, a store in Wheaton, Maryland. (The all-female crowd wasn't unusual; the vast majority of the coral pieces have been made by women.) The Yarn Spot is one of 10 yarn stores in the D.C. area that are hosting workshops and crochet-along parties for the Smithsonian Community Reef.
Jennifer Lindsay, the program coordinator, talked about the history of the project, passed around sample pieces and explained how to crochet hyperbolic planes, pseudospheres and other shapes. Then she set us loose to crochet. People who needed to borrow a crochet hook or some yarn dug through one of Lindsay's bins. Experienced crocheters crowded her to ask questions, while store owner Victoria Rothenberg took the beginners aside to teach them how to wield a crochet hook. A lot were knitters who are perfectly capable with two needles but flummoxed by the single hook of crochet (crocheting is, by the way, much easier).
The coral reef has moved away from the strict requirements of modeling hyperbolic space; crafters are encouraged to experiment with varying the shape, increasing stitches (which widens the fabric and makes it ruffle like a hyperbolic plane) as often as they want to, for example. This is just the way nature works, says Margaret Wertheim, one of the sisters behind the Institute for Figuring. "All these frilly and crenulated structures on the coral reef---sponges, nudibranchs---those are all basically imperfect hyperbolic variants." Of course, the animal isn't counting stitches, but it is varying its growth. "They have it in their DNA to grow like this, but it's affected by their immediate environmental conditions."
And you don't have to stick to hyperbolic shapes; they will take crochet models of anything that sits on a coral reef, like clams and anemones. Heck, you don't even have to stick to crochet. Knitting is welcome, too, as long as the product looks reef-like. Knitting is welcome, too, as long as knitters make hyperbolic shapes or combine knitting (or other fiber techniques like felting, tatting, embroidery, etc.) with crochet. Anyone can mail in pieces by August 30; the deadline for dropping pieces off at a local yarn store or at the museum hasn't been set yet. The reef will be on display in the Ocean Hall from October 16, 2010 to April 24, 2011.