Chat & Selfie: The link between coral reefs and Kevin Bacon? Margaret Wertheim


Beauty is a word rarely used in scientific journals, which is why Margaret Wertheim started the Institute for Figuring in 2003. Its most successful foray into the aesthetics of science is the “Crochet Coral Reef” project, which invites crocheters to create a reef and explore its biological and mathematical complexity. The California section’s Thomas Curwen sat down with Wertheim in her Highland Park home. We later emailed her a few questions. We’ve crunched the conversation into this:

The Crochet Coral Reef was meant to draw attention to global warming and the plight of the Great Barrier Reef. What can we save in California by crocheting?

One of my favorite places is Joshua Tree National Park. It has a kind of Dr. Seuss aesthetic, which helped inspire the Crochet Coral Reef project. Desert landscapes are fragile and endangered, so while I’m sure we can’t save anything by crocheting, we can draw attention to the plight of things threatened by human action.


You’re from the somewhat California-like Australia, which has a proud tradition of standing outside mainstream culture and conventional thinking.

Growing up in the bush has given me a kind of freedom I don’t think I’d have had as a city kid. I look at math and science not just as empirical activities but also as cultural activities. I want to get people to love science and math by doing it for themselves, not just by listening passively to experts. Crocheting a coral reef may seem like handicraft, but it is also the reworking of a complex mathematical problem that challenges sophisticated computers.

But crocheting seems so analog.

Just because crocheting is a handicraft many people associate with their grandmothers doesn’t make it retrograde. Crocheting is an algorithmic process that can be used to build complex shapes very easily. It’s like using pixels, only in 3-D.

Your coral reefs are made from cotton, plastic, fishing line and newspaper wrappers. What “found material” would you like to crochet with?

My sister Christine, who started the Reef project with me, has been crocheting videotape for years, and one of the first videos she crocheted was a Kevin Bacon film. We’re hoping to crochet the entire first season of “Star Trek,” which we recently purchased on EBay.


In the collision of art and science, who wins?

Everyone. We’re so used to hearing that we must choose between our artistic and our logical sides. I disagree fundamentally with this dichotomy. Science demands deep creativity. Einstein’s theory of general relativity is one of the most gorgeous artifacts of Western culture. And artists also use logic and rigor. I’m not saying that art and science are the same, but both involve careful observation and play.

You binged on “Xena” while crocheting the coral reef. What inspiration did you draw from the Warrior Princess?

Girls wanna have fun. While we are slaying monsters, saving cities and riffing on Greek myths, we can also be awesomely supportive sisters to one another.