Joyce Hinnefeld


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Crochet Coral Reefs in Washington, DC

I've cheered up some since my last blog post, and a big part of the reason
--strange as this sounds, even to me--is that I've been reading a book called A Field Guide to Hyperbolic Space. It's by Margaret Wertheim, a science writer who, along with her sister Christine Wertheim, an artist, founded the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles, an organization "dedicated to the poetic and aesthetic dimensions of science, mathematics, and the technical arts," according to its web site.

I found out about the IFF through a show called the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC. When my friend Juli Wilson-Black mentioned this show, I'll admit I was less than enthusiastic. Crocheted coral reefs? It sounded like a kind of joke to me. But I had some time to fill after buying tickets for the Museum's IMAX movie on South Africa's Wild Coast for my daughter and her friend, and so I decided to take a quick look.

It was magical--and pretty hard to describe. I've included a photo here, but this doesn't do the show justice. I noticed that everyone who walked into the Museum's Sant Ocean Hall to see the exhibit immediately began smiling, and photographing. That Sunday afternoon (a week ago), the show had just recently gone up, and I overheard at least two women who had contributed crocheted work pointing out what they'd done. I tried to understand what it was about these fabulous crocheted sea creatures that made me so happy, and I recalled a time, in tenth grade geometry, when I stood at the chalkboard to do some sort of problem, which I guess must have had something to do with comprehending the idea of non-Euclidean space; for some reason, I grasped it for a moment that morning, and I had the most exhilarating sense--for just that moment--of falling into the chalkboard.

To quote from Margaret Wertheim's book:

"We have built a world of rectilinearity.

The rooms we inhabit, they skyscrapers we work in, the grid-like arrangements of our streets and the freeways we cruise on our daily commute speak to us in straight lines.

Yet outside our boxes the natural world teems with swooping, curling and crenellated forms, from the fluted surfaces of lettuces and fungi, to the frilled skirts of nudibranches and the animal undulations of sea slugs and anemonies."

(I don't even know what nudibranches are, but I desperately want to see their "frilled skirts" now, if only to be able to have a picture in my head when I repeat that fantastic phrase over and over to myself)

I'm convinced that it was that same swooping (another fantastic word to borrow from Wertheim) sense of falling off the straight-line grid of my days, already as a high school tenth grader, that came back to me last Sunday in Washington, when I walked into that gallery space, and like everyone else there, felt an uncontrollable urge to smile. And the accompanying notes from Margaret Wertheim, on the ways in which coral reefs display features of hyperbolic space (the whole project is rooted in the work of a mathematician named Daina Taimina, who, "having spent her childhood steeped in feminine handicrafts," came up with the idea of using crochet to allow her students to tactilely experience hyperbolic space) only added to my pleasure.

There have been and will be more exhibits of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef throughout the world. I urge you to try to see one if you can. Even if you hated high school geometry.

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