Thursday, February 5, 2009

Understand - Margaret Wertheim

Yesterday was a good day at TED. But of course, you don't come to TED for a good day. Today, however, was a spectacular TED day.
Margaret Wertheim, an Australian physicist-turned science writer, delivered a juxtaposition of ideas so typical of TED: physics, math, science, and, ahem, crocheting. She and her sister have crocheted a coral reef. What has that to do with Math, you say?
Well, it turns out a coral reef is an example of hyperbolic space. Euclidian and spherical space had long been understood. In Euclidian space, there is exactly one line through a point parallel to any given line; in spherical space there are zero such lines. Hyperbolic space was postulated as a space where there were infinitely many such parallel lines. However, mathematicians couldn't get their heads around it - until finally someone noticed that the crenellated form of corals actually were examples of hyperbolic geometry.
The next step in this saga was when Daina Taimina, a Cornell math professor and author of Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes, noticed that hyperbolic geometry could be modeled in knitting and crocheting.

The next step was for Margaret and her twin sister to set out to crochet a coral reef and start exhibiting it! It is on display at TED and it's simply amazing. Margaret showed us how the twisty form of crochet could be folded so as to illustrate the multitude of parallel lines.
The coral reef shown above has been shown in New York, London and Chicago. And in each place, local people have crocheted their own coral reefs. And more are on their way in Sydney, Scottsdale and Latvia. Margaret and her sister have created a tribe* of reef-crocheters!
As both a mathematician and an avid fan of crocheting, I had to approach Margaret after her talk. Margaret bemoaned the lack of interest or confidence among girls in studying math and science. She hopes that using what is traditionally a female craft as an example of a math concept instead of cars and rockets, which are more stereotypically male, may help to interest girls more in math.
Anybody want to start crocheting coral reefs with me?

* Concept of tribes in review of Seth Godin's book

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