‘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

Wertheim (left) with the coral reef project in the UK

Wertheim (left) with the coral reef project in the UK

Now for Part II of Margaret Wertheim’s Templeton Lecture, ‘We are all corals now‘, given at the University of Sydney on Monday 18 March.

After talking broadly about her coral reef crochet project (including an exposition of the hyperbolic geometry it manifests) and the growing complexity of its crocheted coral forms as it evolved over the years since its inception in 2005, Wertheim turned to some of the more striking corals crocheted by individual contributors around the world. (All the contributors are listed on the crochet coral reef website.)

One of these is Helen Bernasconi, who lives on 80 acres in Bonnie Boon, Victoria, Australia, and keeps a small flock of sheep. She shears, spins and dyes their wool herself, crocheting it into coral forms for the project. Bernasconi was the very first international contributor to the project and has invented a whole genre of crochet sea creatures, including a crochet octopus.

Helen Bernasconi's crochet octopus

Helen Bernasconi’s crochet octopus

As the website says, ‘Helen is a master of both technique and form and over the past 2 years has produced an extraordinary variety of complex, multifaceted shapes. Every time a box arrives from her we marvel again at the diversity of her imagination – she seems to be single-handedly creating several major new branches on the crochet tree of life.’

Wertheim said that when people are let loose, they not only experiment with new forms but also with new materials, like fluff and electronic wire. She showed images of the electronic wire reef creatures, which are extraordinarily beautiful … but they’re neither crocheted nor hyperbolic.

‘In most cases when we get requests to include items that fall into neither category our answer is no, but in the remarkable case of Anita Bruce we knew that all rules are made to be broken. Anita knits sea creatures from scientific wire and when we first encountered her work we knew the Reef should be populated by some of these astonishing knitted specimens.’

Anita Bruce's knitted reef creature

Anita Bruce’s knitted reef creature

One thing that fascinates Wertheim about the project is that it’s a metaphor for understanding the evolution of life on earth. To those who challenge the idea of evolution by asking how so much complexity could come from something so simple, the DNA code, Wertheim says that if the coral reef project can accomplish what it has – its astonishing variety and complexity – in almost 10 years, then surely 3 to 4 billion years of evolution could achieve the complexity of life we find on earth.

Wertheim has travelled widely with the coral reef project, initiating new reefs around the world. As she said, the project has sent out spawn to propagate new reefs just as real coral reefs do. Hundreds and sometimes 1000s of local people participate in creating a community reef. Wertheim said participants come from across race, income, age and class spectrums – but curiously (or not, according to one vocal man in the audience who said it was ‘right’) 99 percent of participants have been women.

And through their involvement in the project, people start relating on new terms, they bond. Wertheim said she was about to go to Abu Dhabi (she’s probably there now) with the coral reef project. She was invited there by the organisers in the hope that her project would help to deal with ethnic tensions in the Middle East. They hope that the prospect of crocheting a coral reef might bring together people who would never ordinarily meet – in particular, that it might bring out Emirati women from their homes and bridge a deep ethnic divide.

Wertheim said the message of the project has been unexpectedly profound. It has become a metaphor for what we humans can do when we work together.

The largest reef – which is at the Smithsonian – is made of 10,000 pieces. It’s 10 feet high and involved some 900 people. It could never have been made by an individual.

The Smithsonian community reef

The Smithsonian community reef

For Wertheim, the deeper metaphor of the project is this: just as we see tiny coral polyps that individually have no significance, collectively they build a coral reef, which then becomes home to some 9 million other species – so too we humans are like these coral polyps. Individually we are small and insignificant. But if we act collectively to build structures together we can do the extraordinary.

Hence the title of Wertheim’s lecture, which is the moral of her project: ‘We are all corals now.’

Wertheim concluded by saying that the coral reef project suggests to her that through the strength of our interconnectivity and our inter-relational power we can save the planet and ourselves.

There’s never been any advertising for the projects. People just come. And the various coral reef projects around the world have bonded communities together. Communities which have wanted to continue to exist beyond the project, but have found there are no channels for them to do so, for all their skills, talents, enthusiasm and creativity.

All of which suggests to Wertheim that we have vast untapped human resources that society is not making use of. Vast untapped human resources that WE are not making use of.

And she left that thought hanging in the air …

Coral by Christine Wertheim, Margaret's twin sister

Coral by Christine Wertheim, Margaret’s twin sister

This entry was posted in Maths and science, Other news and marginalia. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to ‘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

  1. That Smithsonian reef is beautiful.

  2. Delia Falconer says:

    This is just fantastic! Thanks Jane. Delia

  3. Pingback: ‘We Are All Corals Now’–Days Of The Week | «double vision»

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