Crochet to die for gives life to coral reefs


Australian twins Margaret and Christine Wertheim have used incredible crochet techniques to put the fate of coral reefs in the public eye and more than a million have queued up to see it

THE NEW exhibition at the Science Gallery in Trinity College Dublin is an amazing merging of art and science in the interests of environmental campaigning and community engagement. Spanning two floors of this light-filled space are crocheted coral reefs that are mesmerising in their intricate beauty and their incredible visual resemblance to the coral reefs whose environmental destruction they set out to demonstrate.

The Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef – A Woolly Wonderhas been seen by more than one million people since it was first created by twin Australian sisters, Margaret and Christine Wertheim.

The centrepiece of the show is called the Toxic Reef. Made up entirely of plastic, it is a potent reminder of how 10 per cent of our plastic waste ends up in the ocean. “Scientists now believe that it is entirely possible that there will be no coral reefs left by the end of this century,” said Margaret Wertheim at the opening of the exhibition in Dublin. The plastic debris in the ocean is also killing an estimated 100,000 marine mammals and one million seabirds every year.

Close inspection of the Toxic Reef reveals sea anemones made from shopping bags, a forest of kelp made from discarded video tapes, jellyfish made from plastic bin liners and an entire section made from the blue plastic wrappers of the New York Times.

But, the crochet coral reef is not just an effort to highlight the destruction of coral reefs around the world, it is also a concrete example of a mathematical concept that for years, mathematicians set out to disprove. And, this is where the merging of art and science is at its most powerful.

Mathematicians spent hundreds of years trying to prove that hyperbolic space was impossible and although they realised in the 19th century that the laws of mathematics necessitated this form, it wasn’t until when Dr Daina Taimina modelled hyperbolic space using crochet in 1997 that they began to understand it.

Her geometrically precise models are now used to help introduce university students to the subject of non-Euclidean geometry ( The Maths Chapelin the exhibition gives illustrated explanations of the three geometries which explain flat, spherical and hyperbolic space).

And the interesting twist in the story of the Woolly Wonderis that Australian twins, Margaret and Christine Wertheim initially set out to develop further examples of hyperbolic space with crochet when they began to realise the close similarity with coral reefs. And, the Los Angeles-based twins saw the possibility to highlight the effects of global warming on the Great Barrier Reef by deviating from the original pattern to create all sorts of crenellated corals, loopy kelps, fringed anemones and curlicued sponges – all of which were variations of the mathematical structure of hyperbolic space.

Then, when they first exhibited Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef,people wanted to learn how to crochet. In fact, in some places, there were anonymous donations of crocheted coral that have since become part of the exhibition. Also, in the months before the exhibition visits a city, the Wertheims put out a call for local input.

Irene Lundgaard and Orla Breslin were among those people in Ireland who responded to this call. “We became the motivators and the facilitators for the Irish Reef. It has been a very fulfilling project to be involved with,” explains Lundgaard, who teaches crochet.

“It’s a very female take on science. We work with our hands rather than our heads,” she continues. “I hope it will raise awareness about coral reefs from the West of Ireland to Australia,” she adds.

In total, it is estimated that 10,000 hours of human labour carried out by about 3,000 women (and a few men) have contributed to the making of the Woolly Wonder.

The voluntary community aspect of the project is attracting many people into the Science Gallery who might never have visited it before. School groups are also particularly entranced and the “mediators” in the gallery are willing to give guided tours to anyone who arrives. On my third visit to the exhibition, one such mediator was very engaging on the whole exhibition. A student of computer science, linguistics and German, Louise Ryan had a small piece of crochet which she worked while in the gallery.

“We’ve all learned how to crochet. It’s difficult to get started but then it becomes addictive. The hyperbolic pattern crenellates and curls all by itself. There is no concept of a beginning or an end to it,” she explains.

Speaking to a computer science student about crochet is not what you might expect in the Science Gallery, but then our conversation moves to hyperbolic space and how astronomers now think that the universe might be a hyperbolic ever-expanding space. Even having conversations like this reminds you what innovation is really about and how important art and science are to the process.

And so back in Los Angeles, where the Wertheim sisters have set up the Institute of Figuring to allow people to explore ideas in a novel way.

“It’s like a kindergarden for grown-ups. We are proposing an alternative way of doing things: The Play Tank where people can engage with the highest levels of computing, maths and logic by physically playing with ideas,” explains Margaret Wertheim.

Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef – A Woolly Wonderis at the Science Gallery, Pearse St, Trinity College, Dublin, until June 11. Admission free, suggested donation €5. Tel: 01-8964091