‘Everything has been created by sea mucus for love arises from the foam’: Margaret Wertheim gives the 23rd Templeton Lecture ‘We are all corals now’, Part I

Margaret Wertheim

Margaret Wertheim

How apt (or NOT) that I should have planned to blog about Margaret Wertheim’s intriguing, inspiring, provocative 2013 Templeton Lecture We are all corals now: A meditation on art, science and hope in an age of global warming just moments after reading about a renowned rocket scientist whose New York Times obituary opens ‘She made a mean beef stroganoff …‘ GRRR.

Moving right along, to the world where women are brilliant scientists and mathematicians and are heralded for these gifts and talents …

On Monday 18 March I went to hear renowned mathematician, physicist and writer Margaret Wertheim give the 23rd Templeton Lecture at the University of Sydney. The Templeton Lectures were founded by Professor Charles Birch, one of the first scientists to win the Templeton Prize for ‘entrepreneurs of the spirit’.

51DKQ6NV03L._SL500_SY300_Wertheim began by paying tribute to Charles Birch, one of her teachers at the University of Sydney and a founder of ecological science in Australia. She said that Birch’s landmark book On Purpose had been ‘meaningful’ to her, especially when she was writing her cultural history of physics, Pythagoras’s Trousers, which looked at why and how science and religion have interacted over the centuries. She said Birch was one of the first to write on the subject of science and religion from the point of view of a scientific practitioner, and one of the very first people to write philosophically on the relationship between humans and the environment.

In On Purpose Birch sets out a view of the world not as a place of things, of objects, but of events and processes. His world was not mechanistic but influenced by process thinking and by mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead.

Wertheim said she concurred with Birch’s view of the world: she believes the world is presented incorrectly as a place of things, not of relationships – just as science is incorrectly presented to us as a study of things, of objects, not of relationships.

Ten years ago Wertheim realised that it’s better to present science not as a body of facts but as a process. And the institute she’s founded with her twin sister, an artist and Professor of Art – the Institute for Figuring (IFF) – is about understanding interrelations and interconnections in our world. She considers the IFF as a ‘Play Tank’, as against a ‘Think Tank’ – it’s a place for playful activities that get bodies working and learning, not just minds. It generates participatory programmes which involve large numbers of people around the planet. Her lecture was on one of these projects, the biggest participatory art and science project in the world: crocheting a coral reef.


Crocheted coral reef

The ‘coral reef project’ was conceived California in 2005, inspired by this fantastic quote from Lorenz Oken: ‘Everything has been created out of sea mucus for love arises from the foam’. (Sigh. Such is the poetry of science. Its mythos: the birth of love – Aphrodite – from the foam, aka Ouranos’s testicles, castrated and tossed into the sea by his son Cronos.)

When Wertheim and her sister began the project she thought two to three dozen people around the world might want to participate – instead more than 7,000 people have taken part in it. It has been called the ‘AIDS quilt project of global warming’.

Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef

One of its main aims is to respond to global warming. Coral reefs are one of the leading indicators that global warming is not in our future but is here and now. The rising levels of CO2 cause ocean warming and acidification – or ‘CocoCola ocean’ – which destroy corals. So the coral reef project was started as a positive, creative response to global warming. They joked that if the Great Barrier Reef died out, there’d be something to remember it by.

OK, but why make a coral reef out of wool? The two substances don’t immediately go together: yarn and water.

But it turns out, Wertheim said, that yarn is the logically necessary medium – because the best way for humans to make models of hyperbolic geometry is through crochet.

Wertheim then gave a brilliant exposition of hyperbolic geometry and its history.

Hyperbolic geometry – frilly, crenellated forms – is present throughout the marine world. Or, as Wertheim said: ‘Nature has a love affair with hyperbolic geometry.’ And yet for hundreds of years mathematicians tried to prove that hyperbolic geometry was impossible in theory and in nature. Wertheim said she likes to claim that a sea slug knows hyperbolic geometry in the structure of its being – and knew it long before humans did.

But even after mathematicians understood the theoretical existence of hyperbolic space in the early 19th century, not until 1997 did any human work out how model it. In that year Dr Daina Taimina discovered that crochet was the best way of making mathematical models of hyperbolic geometry. Before then, it couldn’t be modelled; even when scientists knew it existed, they couldn’t create models of it.

Dr Taimina with her crocheted hyperbolic space

Dr Taimina with her crocheted hyperbolic space

Euclidean space, long known by humans, has zero curvature.

Spherical space, long known by humans, has positive curvature.

Hyperbolic space – one of the most important scientific discoveries of the early 19th century – has negative curvature.

The greatest mathematicians of our culture spent hundreds of years wrestling with this question of hyperbolic space and resisting its possibility. But eventually they realised that just as there are positive and negative numbers, so there are positive and negative spaces.

In the 1820s mathematicians understood hyperbolic space existed – but only found a way of modelling it in 1997. (Wertheim enjoyed repeating this fact, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing it repeated.) This was a revolution in representation. (Through crochet!)

Dr Taimira uses these crochet models of hyperbolic space to teach non-Euclidean geometry to her university students – and she was soon inundated with requests by universities around the world for versions of her embodied models, which enable you very quickly to learn the mathematics of negative space and have led to the development of entire fields of non-Euclidean geometry.

The mathematics involved is the same as that used by Einstein to formulate his Theory of General Relativity – and will, Wertheim said, ultimately tell us about the structure of the universe.

‘Here we have a link between feminine handicraft – crocheting – and the architecture of the universe.’

Wertheim said that this relationship, between crochet and the architecture of the universe, was a ‘beautiful lesson’ she learnt from the coral reef project.

She described the coral reef project as ‘A woolly taxonomy of crochet coral species’. Over the life of the project – which is ongoing – an ever evolving crochet tree of life has been created. And unexpectedly, the woolly reef has mimicked the process of evolution, which is founded on ‘geometric aberrancy’.

‘Geometric aberrancy leads to natural forms.’

The crocheted corals started out being based on very simple mathematically perfect models – crochet n stitches, increase 1 – but once you start branching out and creating embellishments, you get increasing complexity and form. This increasing complexity was completely unexpected.

Wertheim then discussed some of the more striking corals crocheted by individual contributors … and meditated suggestively on the nature of this vast crochet coral reef project. I’ll be writing Part II of Wertheim’s Templeton Lecture later this week.

As you can see, when you mix physics, maths, art and global warming, the results are fascinating … endlessly!


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5 Responses to ‘Everything has been created by sea mucus for love arises from the foam’: Margaret Wertheim gives the 23rd Templeton Lecture ‘We are all corals now’, Part I

  1. This is a wonderful review Jane. And an incredible project…I can’t wait to share it with my friends, many of whom are users of wool for various projects. This brings together so many aspects of life: art, animals (wool), community builiding, international connections, art, art, art. and science science and science. I’m reminded daily of how ART and COMMERCE were so interwoven during the Renaissance. I feel that Leonardo and Luca are doing everything they can from their side of the atmosphere to help us bring ourselves back into balance. There are so many incredible GOOD things going on around us. YOU are part of letting the world know with this wonderful blog. thank you. Erica

    • Thanks Erica. At last I’m here replying to your wonderful comments. And will reply to your long one next!
      Yes, it is an amazing and inspiring project – and I’m thrilled to hear many of your friends use wool for various things. How perfect.
      I also like hearing you’re reminded daily about the interweaving (apt!) of art and commerce during the Renaissance. This keeps coming up for me too, in conversations etc. Perhaps their interwoven time has returned. And I love your feeling that Leonardo and Luca are doing everything they can – ‘from their side of the atmosphere – to help us bring this back into balance! (Very happy you think of Luca in same breath as Leonardo too.)
      Yes, I do think there are so many incredible, good things going on around us – and very happy that this blog has brought you into my ambit too.
      best wishes, Jane

  2. Hi Jane – thank you for the lovely thoughtful review of my lecture. The Crochet Coral Reef project is a synthesis of art and science and community practice that I think is very unusual. In an age when so much seems to be focused on valorizing the individual, we feel proud to be doing something that foregrounds the value of collective practice and community. With regards

    • Pleasure, Margaret. And thanks for your comment. I absolutely loved your talk – so much so that I took pages and pages of notes (I was astonished to see how many) so have to write it up in two parts. Part II is to come, and will take in your thoughts above, about the valuing of collective practice and community. I really loved your concluding meditations on these themes, about the greater meaning of your project … I liked that they were so open, so inconclusive. I think they’re extremely important, ways into the future – a new unknown – perhaps, and I hope to capture them when I write up the rest.
      best wishes to you and your corals! Jane

  3. Pingback: ‘We are all corals now: A meditation on art, science and hope in an age of global warming’ – Margaret Wertheim’s Templeton Lecture, Part II | bookish girl

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