Hyperbolic Planes Take Off
Think the world is all straight lines and points and spheres?
Think again. Margaret and Christine Wertheim’s Institute
for Figuring will show you that the world is also hyperbolic.
The institute is the primary home of Cornell mathematician Daina
Taimina’s hyperbolic crochet pieces. In 1997, Taimina figured
out a way to make durable, easy-to-handle physical models of a
mind-bending kind of space called hyperbolic space: She would
crochet them. In a hyperbolic plane, the surface curves away from
itself at every point. Scientists had been pasting together paper
triangles to demonstrate hyperbolic geometry ever since it was
discovered in the early 1800s. Paper constructions were fragile,
difficult to make and easily torn. But Taimina’s crocheted
models are an elegant solution to a long-standing problem. Lately,
Taimina, who learned traditional handicrafts as a child in her
native Latvia, and the Wertheims — also avid knitters/crocheters
— have been turning out the hyperbolic models like hotcakes.
The models’ growth has been exponential, both literally
and figuratively. Since the IFF’s exhibit at Machine Gallery
in Echo Park in August, the institute has been invited to stage
five shows next year, and art patron Eileen Norton has even commissioned
a series of them for her personal collection. Pieces range from
4 inches to 2 feet in diameter and look like blue lettuce, or
orange sea kelp, or the pink scrunchies that cheerleaders use
to tie up their ponytails. In addition to being mathematically
accurate, they’re colorful, fun to play with and cute in
a complex way. A perfect match for the institute’s mandate
to elucidate the aesthetics and poetics of scientific thought.
“That it took something as simple as female handicrafts
to make the most abstract science visible,” says institute
founder (and Weekly science columnist) Margaret Wertheim, “is
the beautiful thing about them.” We couldn’t agree
more. (Gendy Alimurung)