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More on the Hyperbolic Coral Reef

January 2, 2011

Way back in November 2009, when this blog was just getting rolling, I posted about the Hyperbolic Coral Reef Project. This past November, I had the opportunity to actually see it, or a portion of it, at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in downtown Washington, DC.  It is feast for the eyes, and it will be on display through most of April 2011.

Towering, tumbling crocheted (etc.) reef

The reefs on display at the museum were mostly made in the DC region.  Much of the work is crocheted, but all sorts of other techniques have been employed by the many hands that contributed to this extravaganza.  Most of the forms reflect and illustrate the basic hyperbolic geometry concept behind the Wertheim sisters’ original idea that jumpstarted the project.  But now some elements are created using any technique and material at hand – often recycled and often the culprits in trashing the world’s oceans and the reefs that live in them.  What started out as a project as much about crochet and math as it was about saving the world’s coral reefs, has become much more about the latter.

Audio tape, zip ties, and newspaper sleeves (etc.)I find this project fascinating because it is such a beautiful and complete group project, and it can grow indefinitely.  The message is strong and the work is strongest as a collective, massive piece.  Each individual element may vary in (subjective) beauty and quality, but the overall effect is stunning.  The colors, whether garish or subtle can’t be wrong.  The forms can never be too fantastical.  And now, the materials can never be either too mundane or too precious.  All of those elements are part of the statement.

Plastic bottle and box strapping anemone

My only criticism relates to the way the work is presented (perhaps only at the Smithsonian).  This is a wonderful opportunity to teach beyond the basic message. While the work captures the beauty and diversity of the reefs, and the recycled materials reflect the  message of the human role in ruining the reefs as well as trying to save the reefs, the math behind the forms is lost in the environmental message.

Math is not an easy thing to present intriguingly to the public, and the project started as a brilliant starting point for just that.  As Margaret Wertheim points out in her fascinating TED.com talk, crochet is only one of many examples of how man and nature demonstrate this mathematical concept.  And although my brother pointed out (math geek that he is) that the forms aren’t actually a literal embodiment of the concept of hyperbolic geometry (just the first steps toward illustrating something much more complicated), such a spectacular visual springboard for illustrating the math should not be wasted. I would love to see a bit more wall space, and perhaps even a display case, devoted to demonstrating the relationship between the crocheted increases and the math they illustrate (or begin to illustrate).   I really hope that omitting this subject was not just another example of how many museums assume that their audiences can’t handle more complicated or text-heavy information.  How will we learn if no one tries to teach us?

All in all, however, it is a terrific exhibition, well worth visiting.  The Hyperbolic Coral Reef website is also still well worth a visit.  It also lists various other satellite reefs that have been developed around the world.

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