Kieran Mulvaney
A portion of the crochet coral reef at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington D.C.
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updated 3/7/2011 1:19:38 PM ET 2011-03-07T18:19:38

It first catches your eye as a riot of color at the back of the hall, visible through a gap between a couple of other exhibits. You investigate, and it reveals itself as a wondrous mishmash of different shapes and forms, looking for all the world like some form of coral reef. You look closer and you realize it is a coral reef — not a real one, of course, but a representation of one. You look closer still and you are hit by the biggest surprise of all. The whole thing is made from crochet.

It all began with hyperbolic planes. As described by mathematician Daina Taimina, a hyperbolic plane is "the geometric opposite of the sphere. On a sphere, the surface curves in on itself and is closed. A hyperbolic plane is a surface in which the space curves away from itself at every point."

For many years, mathematicians scratched their heads trying to figure out how to create physical models of such hyperbolic planes, without too much success. In 1997, Taimina realized that it was relatively easy to do so with crochet, an endeavor that ultimately resulted in her publishing a book, Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes (which, incidentally, was judged to have been the oddest book title of the year).

But, as it turns out, hyperbolic forms exist under our very noses, as Taimina demonstrated when she displayed some hyperbolic lettuce leaves as part of a presentation in 2005 at the Institute for Figuring, a small organization in Los Angeles founded by twin sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim to promote "the aesthetic and poetic dimensions of science and mathematics." They are particularly prevalent underwater: in sea slugs, for example, in kelp, and especially notably, in coral reefs.

The Wertheims were born and raised in Queensland, home of the Great Barrier Reef, and at the time of Taimina's presentation, they had been closely following a series of studies about the impacts of climate change on coral reefs in general, and that reef in particular. Suitably inspired, they used Taimina's technique to crochet hyperbolic corals, and mentioned the project on their website. To their surprise, the Andy Warhol Museum called, and proposed that the crochet coral reef be a part of an exhibition on artists' response to climate change. Then, in 2007, the sisters found themselves crocheting furiously to fulfill a request from the Chicago Humanities Festival to fill a 3,000 square foot display area. The Chicago organizers decided that, in addition to displaying the Wertheims' reef, they'd like to have local people making crochet coral of their own. So the sisters held workshops and taught their techniques, and a movement was born.

Kieran Mulvaney
The 'bleached reef' portion of the exhibit, toward the back, was done mostly in white wool.

Now, people from around the world submit creations to the Institute for Figuring, and the crochet coral reef has been exhibited in venues as disparate as Dublin and Arizona and points in between. And wherever it — or, at least, portions of it — go, it is now joined by crocheted coral created locally in anticipation of its arrival. Currently, it is on display among other marine exhibits in the Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. Here, some 4,000 individual items from 800 contributors — collected over a period of five months and then pieced together, one at a time, by museum staff and about 100 volunteers — have joined the traveling display, forming one big reef structure.

At the front, vibrant colors dominate; around the back, corals crocheted with white wool represent a bleached reef, while other items stitched together using items such as audio tape, plastic bags and batteries form the "toxic" reef, a lesson on pollution. The remarkable thing is that, with so many individual items of different shapes, sizes and colors, the whole thing really does feel like a coral reef. Some creations are a tad fantastical, like a reef as imagined on LSD, but here and there are recognizable entries: a brittle star, a brain coral, even an octopus peering out at visitors.

"The thing I like about it as a coral reef biologist is that, when you dive on a healthy reef, it’s covered with life, everything growing out and trying to capture real estate, so you have all these different sizes and shapes and textures of organisms competing for space, and that of course is what you have here as well," says Nancy Knowlton of the Smithsonian.

Each piece has a story to tell. The youngest contributors were 3 years old, the oldest 101. Those pieces that have been submitted by the very young or the infirm have been deliberately placed at the bottom so their creators can see them more easily. One, sent in during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, is pink and contains pearls adorned with the names of survivors and victims of the disease.

"The beautiful thing about this exhibit is that it combines science, mathematics, conservation, art and of course community — all these people coming together to create this structure," says Knowlton. "What I love about it is it’s been on Fox News, it was also in Street Sense, which is the magazine by and for the homeless of Washington, D.C. They had a cover story on it that was called, 'Homeless Women Stitch Their Way Into the Smithsonian.' And you can just stand back and watch the way people interact with it. People are completely captivated by the fact that you can create something like this out of crochet."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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