Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef: A Colorful Yarn of the Sea

Hundreds of crocheters, ranging in age from 3 to 101, contributed to the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef currently on exhibit on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Few people have seen more real reefs than marine biologist Nancy Knowlton, the Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and a member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration.

In this video, Knowlton gives Nat Geo News Watch a tour of the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef, which she helped bring to the museum for public appreciation. She explains what a hyperbolic crochet coral reef is and what it teaches us about its real-life counterpart in the ocean.

Video by David Braun

Reefs in nature are built by communities of organisms; the crochet reef is also built by a community, Knowlton observes. The 4,000 individual pieces of the crochet reef were created by about 800 people, from all walks of life, including some of the homeless people in Washington, D.C. “It’s a project that unites an amazingly diverse group of people and gets them to think about coral reefs,” she says.

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The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is a project created and run by the Los Angeles-based Institute For Figuring.

Photo by David Braun

Margaret and Christine Wertheim, co-founders of the Institute for Figuring, created the exhibition that combines the mathematics of hyperbolic geometry with the delicateness of a traditionally women’s handicraft, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History says on its website.

“The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef is a traveling exhibition that not only displays these artworks, but also incorporates an ever-growing social project–teaching others around the world how to crochet hyperbolically and make their own reefs.”

Watch a video of Margaret Wertheim “on the beautiful math of coral.”

Video by TED

What’s Hyperbolic?

In 1997, Dr Daina Taimina, a mathematician, discovered how to make physical models of the geometry known as “hyperbolic space” using the art of crochet, the Museum of Natural History explains on its website.

“Until that time many mathematicians believed it was impossible to construct such forms; yet nature had been doing just that for hundreds of millions of years. Many marine organisms embody hyperbolic geometry in their anatomies, including corals. This geometry maximizes surface area in a limited volume, thereby providing greater opportunity for filter feeding by stationary corals.”

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Photos by David Braun

The colorful part of the crochet reef symbolizes what a healthy reef should like, Knowlton says. The closer you look, the more kinds of things can be found. “With 4,000 pieces, there is a lot of diversity here,” she adds.

The Light Side

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Photos by David Braun

One side of the crochet reef is designed to evoke some of the problems faced by coral reefs. As you move around toward the back of the crochet reef, you start seeing that it is losing color and getting paler and paler. “Over here in the back, the reef is made out of very pale yarn, to symbolize the problem of coral bleaching,” Knowlton explains. “Bleaching happens whenever the water is too warm, and this is a big problem in the context of global warming.”

Right now in many places in the Caribbean the reefs are completely white, even whiter than what the crochet reef shows. When coral reefs stay bleached too long they die, Knowlton says.

In the plastic part of the crochet reef, bits and pieces of trash regularly found in the ocean have been incorporated into the design: plastic bags, batteries, fishing tackle, aluminum foil, cassette tape. Garbage is not just a problem for coral reefs, but for the oceans at large, Knowlton says.

Pictures of the Crochet Reef

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Photos by David Braun

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Nancy Knowlton at the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef in Washington, D.C.

Photo by David Braun

More from Nancy Knowlton

When more than two thousand scientists from countries across the world set out ten years ago to document the species living in the sea, little did anyone imagine the wonders they would find–or how, at the end of decade-long search, we would have a better appreciation of just how much we don’t know about what’s in the liquid realm of our oceanic planet.

The Census of Marine Life was well reported by National Geographic News over the ten years, drawing huge audiences to features like: 13 Stunning Photos From 10-Year Sea Census, Pictures: Hard-to-See Sea Creatures Revealed, and Photos: New Species, “Living Fossils” Found in Atlantic.

Now the distinguished marine biologist, Nancy Knowlton, has collected many of the highlights of these and other discoveries of the Census of Marine Life in a new National Geographic book, Citizens of the Sea.

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The diversity of ocean life is celebrated in a book from National Geographic, Citizens of the Sea: Wondrous Creatures from the Census of Marine Life (National Geographic Books; ISBN: 978-1-4262-0643-6; Sept. 14, 2010; $25; hardcover).

Read more and watch a video of Nancy Knowlton discussing her new book: Citizens of the Sea: National Geographic Showcase of Marine Wonders.

Posted by David Braun

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Meet the Author
More than forty years in U.S., UK, and South African media gives David Max Braun global perspective and experience across multiple storytelling platforms. His coverage of science, nature, politics, and technology has been published/broadcast by the BBC, CNN, NPR, AP, UPI, National Geographic, TechWeb, De Telegraaf, Travel World, and Argus South African Newspapers. He has published two books and won several journalism awards. In his 22-year career at National Geographic he was VP and editor in chief of National Geographic Digital Media, and the founding editor of the National Geographic Society blog, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society's mission and initiatives. He also directed the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship, awarded to Americans seeking the opportunity to spend nine months abroad, engaging local communities and sharing stories from the field with a global audience. A regular expert on National Geographic Expeditions, David also lectures on storytelling for impact. He has 120,000 followers on social media: Facebook  Twitter  LinkedIn