Spanning 1,500 miles, the chain of coral heads, cays, and islands known as the Great Barrier Reef occupies as many square miles as Italy. It is Earth's largest living structure, a complex limestone lattice constructed by colonies of coral polyps that feed on algae and light. From space, it looks like an aquamarine spine that hugs the contours of Australia's eastern coast. Close up, it is a riot of color and life, hosting hundreds of thousands of species of fish, worms, mollusks, sharks, turtles, and whales.
According to scientists, 2016 is on track to be the hottest year in history, and the high temperatures have lead to widespread coral die-offs, putting the rich ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef and the rest of Earth's reefs at risk. For more than ten years, science journalist Margaret Wertheim has been raising awareness about the looming threat to corals by organizing an effort to reproduce the reef in yarn and string. With her artist twin sister Christine, she founded the Institute for Figuring, which has mobilized thousands of contributors to learn advanced mathematical concepts that allow them to knit the ample frills and plumes and pom-poms of underwater creatures. The rainbow reef they have assembled is now a traveling exhibit named Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas, which will be shown at New York's Museum of Arts and Design starting this month.
This project is just one incarnation of Wertheim's lifelong mission to engage people who wouldn't otherwise have access to or interest in learning scientific concepts. After studying physics at the University of Queensland, she worked as a science journalist, writing for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, New Scientist, the Guardian, and others, and she has published six books on the cultural history of science, most recently Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons and Alternative Theories of Everything . I got her on the phone to talk about why she thinks it's important to write about science for a mainstream audience, institutional sexism in the sciences, and how she got the idea to handicraft a great coral reef.
Rose Lichter-Marck: Why did you decide to study physics?
Margaret Wertheim: I fell in love with math when I was about six years old. Later, I realized that physics is a way of seeing the world through math. Mathematicians consider numbers and geometric shapes as things in themselves, but physicists say, "How can math help us understand the physical, material world around us?"
As a science communicator, I want to make science and mathematics more accessible by showing the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of those fields. I'm interested in the sheer beauty that math and science embody, but also I'm trying to understand how science is shaped by wider cultural forces, and once the science is developed how it in turn shapes society.
An obvious example of this is the shift from a geocentric cosmology to the modern heliocentric system. Medieval thinkers believed that humans were at the center of everything, including God's attention. But in the heliocentric cosmos, we're just one planet floating around one star in a vast void. These transitions in our scientific thinking have huge impacts on how we conceptualize what it means to be a human being.
RLM: Why do you think it's important to reach people who are not necessarily scientists, and specifically women, on these topics?
MW: Science plays a huge role in the practicalities of our daily lives — cell phones, medicine, pharmaceuticals, transportation — all of these things have been brought about by scientific theorizing. For that reason alone, I think it's important that a wider group of people have some understanding of science.