How crocheting rescued math

I just got a Thinking Putty from a science museum store. It is slime that you can squeeze, stretch, and knead, but it also has a special something added to it – a "glow charger." When I project the light from the glow charger onto my slime, my slime takes on wondrous colors, as if I was holding the Aurora borealis at the palm of my hands. I go "oooh, ahhhh," and then I somehow lapse into contemplating the wonder of nature from the structures that we often take for granted. 

If we broke down slime into a structure that you can readily see, it would be like a fence made up of  identical blocks that repeat themselves in a pattern. The "fence" is the polymer, while the "blocks" are the monomers. Other examples of polymers are plastic, rubber, and nylon. In a polymer like slime, the molecules of its main ingredients (glue and borax) link with each other in such a way that makes it really hard for them to go past slide each other, keeping your slime intact even when you throw it, press it, or stretch it. 

Normally, when you think of nature, you do not think of structure. You think nature is this free-flowing razzmatazz, and that there is no pattern that underlie its structures. But the work of people like mathematician and science writer Margaret Wertheim will convince you otherwise. What's more, you will find connections between many things across nature – connections that could better get a hold of your mind so that you do not see it merely as a stage for your existence or your vacations. 

I recently had a chance to attend a talk by Margaret Wertheim. We were all blown away not just by the clarity of her ideas but also the stunning beauty of the joint work she does with her twin sister, Christine, who is an art professor. 

It all came from the work of Daina Taimina, a professor who discovered that the curved lines which you can "draw" on a sphere – like on Earth, which all eventually meet on the pole – are actually straight lines. This could not be proven before, but she did this with crochet models. Yes, crochet models – one of which she wears on her dress. It turned out that the once impossible mathematics could be proven by traditional feminine craft. And these crochet models mirrored the structures of coral reefs that had wavy, lattice-like structures to maximize their surface area so they can capture as much nutrients as they can as water wafts through them. This is nature's genius design for things that cannot move on their own to feed themselves!

Margaret and Christine took this a bit further. Since 2005, they have worked with hundreds of people across the world – 99% of them women – to creat magnificent structures that are crochet models of coral reefs and more. They also went beyond the specific code of hyperbolic space (the term for this mathematics) and added slight changes in the pattern. When they did, they came out with crochet models that resembled nature's patterns – a crochet mammal here, a crochet insect there! Some of them looked to me like crocheted models of images from the Hubble space telescope. I won't be surprised to see crochet patterns of cells and intricate structures of organs. Their crochet models have been exhibited all over the world.

The talk was made even more interesting when she said that when she was asking for funding from her project, the reception from science was very cold. She said that it was the art museums who were very excited about their project and wanted their exhibition to be part of theirs. She said that one scientist, a man who was also in charge of a funding institution, even told her that he did not understand how a bunch of knitting women would be able to connect it with math. Margaret sensed that the man saw crocheting as a lowly tradition done by housewives across the world, and that he could not imagine how these women could be co-weavers of connections in the mathematical concepts that underlie nature's patterns.  

Well, I also do not understand how a bunch of hyperbolic space in that man's brain could not capture as much thought as to understand how everyday women who knit can demonstrate the math in beautiful models without cerebrally chewing the equation. But he turned Margaret down and it was the art world that became the stage for the beautiful works that actually demonstrated spatial understanding of nature with familiar materials and traditional craft. Like Margaret, I felt so sad and ashamed that this was shunned by the sciences. 

The works of Daina Taimina, and Margaret and Christine Wertheim are examples of how, by understanding, we can even have a deeper appreciation of nature. It does not take away the sense of wonder but deepens it further. Their work also shows that there are mathematical and scientific truths that are impossible to show in equations but that art can easily reveal in handcrafted tapestries. This is where art, indeed, rescued the sciences. – Rappler.com

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at sciencesolitaire@gmail.com.