Created and Curated by Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the Institute For Figuring in Los Angeles

Between the 20th of March and June 11th, 2010, over 50,000 visitors came to the Science Gallery. Many came away inspired to take up crocheting, learn more about hyperbolic geometry or to explore the secret underwater world of corals.

One of the acknowledged wonders of the natural world, the Great Barrier Reef stretches along the coast of Queensland, Australia, in riotous profusion of colour and form unparalleled on our planet. But global warming and pollutants so threaten this fragile marvel it now faces devastation, along with reefs around the world. In homage to these disappearing treasures, Australian sisters Christine and Margaret Wertheim instigated a project to crochet a handmade reef, a woolly testimony that celebrates also a strange geometry realised throughout the oceanic realm.

In coral reefs we witness an endless whimsical diversity – loopy kelps, fringed anemones, crenellated corals, curlicued sponges. All these forms are variations of a mathematical structure known as hyperbolic space. Though mathematicians had long believed this space was impossible, nature has been playing with its permutations for hundreds of millions of years. In 1997, Dr Daina Taimina of Cornell University realised how to make models of this geometry using the art of crochet. Building on Dr Taimina’s techniques through  elaborations of her original crochet code, the Wertheim sisters have spent the past five years developing an ever-evolving taxonomy of reef-life forms.

Tightly bunched mounds of brain coral, wavy strands of kelp, tubeworms, sea slugs and nudibranchs have all been mimicked with the twins’ techniques. Just as the diversity of living species results from variations in an underlying DNA code, so too a huge range of hyperbolic crochet ‘species’ may be brought into being through modifications in the underlying crochet code. There is an ever-evolving crochet ‘tree of life’.

Anyone who takes up these techniques can begin to develop their own woolly species and the Crochet Reef is a communal project. The community of Reef Contributors now spans the globe with participants coming from across the USA, as well as Australia, England, Ireland, Latvia and Japan. Taken as a totality, the project has become an unexpected, global, evolutionary experiment that engages people around the world.