The crocheted coral reef now on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History is an intriguing mix of art, geometry and natural science. It’s the type of project we at Popular Kinetics love because it touches on so many aspects of the visual and scientific world. Mathematicians discovered hyperbolic geometry in the early 19th century—a geometry set on a curved surface as opposed to Euclid’s geometry set on a flat plane. Nature employs hyperbolic forms to expand surface area in plants, such as in the crinkles of lettuces and ruffles of sea kelp, but scientists had no idea how to build a physical model of the formulas until mathematician Daina Taimina realized that crochet can replicate the same forms.
The idea was picked up by the Wertheim sisters, Margaret and Christina, who grew up close to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. While crocheting hyperbolic forms, they noted how their models resembled the corals and sea creatures of the reef, and thus the project was born. The crocheted reef at the Smithsonian is made from a mix of materials, including recycled plastics, beads and cassette tapes, addressing the problem of trash in our oceans. A portion of the reef is white, representing a dead reef.
The exhibit is up until April 24th, so hurry to Washington for a look, or visit the Smithsonian web site for a video about the making of the crocheted reef.