14 November 2013

Hyperbolic Crochet

hyperbolic crochet like coral

Manchester Museum will soon open a major exhibition, 'Coral: Something Rich and Strange'

It looks like someone has had a good thinking session and come up with a long list of objects associated with coral, then put a call out to other Manchester institutions to see if they have them.

There will be 'natural coral specimens, fossils and glass models of sea anemones with ethnographic objects, cultural artefacts, decorative art objects and artworks from different cultures around the globe. The cross-disciplinary display relies on objects from most of the Museum’s own departments – Zoology, Archaeology, Egyptology, Numismatics and Anthropology – but also draws on major loans from the Whitworth Art Gallery and Manchester Art Gallery. For example, Marion 'unearthed' a large collection of Victorian coral jewellery at the Gallery of Costume at Platt Hall, parts of which will be on display alongside Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Pre-Raphaelite painting Joli Cœur, among other works.'

Wow, with all that stuff on display you're bound to learn something.

And the sainted Michael Wood will be giving a speech on the opening night.

I'm guessing the impulse to mount such an extensive exhibition is the plight of living coral reefs today.  The combination of climate warming, ocean acidification, sedimentation and physical damage mean reefs are an endangered phenomenon. 

Sad.         Again.

But on the bright side the museum has a public engagement remit which means I get to do something fun and educational at the same time.

Now, this is going to be difficult to explain so please bear with me ...

one day a super clever mathematician was idly crocheting when she suddenly realised crochet would be the perfect medium to demonstrate hyperbolic space to her students. 

I know! What's hyperbolic space?  I watched this TED talk and I'm still not sure:

Luckily, you don't have to grasp the significance of the maths to have a go at hyperbolic crochet. You can just pick up the hook and do rows and rows of stitches. The curling shapes are the result of increasing every few stitches ie. every 3rd or 4th stitch. Or as the mathematicians put it, every n=3.    This regular increasing gradually produces an exaggeratedly curved shape.

hyperbolic crochet shape

So what has this got to do with coral? Well, as you see coral like forms emerge from all those straight lines of hooking.

And if you ask the public to let their imaginations run riot with this magical result and then collect the weird and wonderful shapes in a natural history exhibition room you end up with a challengingly colourful artificial coral reef.

These then are a perfect way of educating the public about coral and mathematics. All in one go.

Of course, I'm not sure if this is really the case. We are not going to become mathematicians or defenders of the reefs by  creating or seeing a mound of incredibly ugly textile art, but then again there may be a more subtle benefit.

Personally, by watching organic shapes emerge from my fingers as I mechanically counted stitches, I came to appreciate the structure and organisation underlying the seeming randomness of nature. Food for thought.

And the woman who first had the idea of crocheted reefs, Margaret Wertheim, has come to another understanding:

Wertheim says it would be hubristic to claim that her project alone could make people care about endangered reefs. Yet the last three years have brightened her outlook.

"A reef is made up of billions of coral polyps," she says. "Each one of these is completely insignificant individually, but collectively, they make up something as magnificent as the Great Barrier Reef. We humans, when we work together, can do amazing things."