It’s hard to get people’s attention focused on the environment. Blame it on diminishing attention spans, overwhelming amounts of information, or simply the fact that people grow weary of hearing the same problems discussed to death.

The failing health of coral reefs might fall into this last category—a very real problem with the same sad story year after year. But no matter how many times a scientist talks about the perils of reefs around the world, some of the same problems never seem to go away.

In 2005, Los Angeles-based twin sisters, Margaret and Christine Wertheim tried a different approach to communications by starting the Crochet Coral Reef project. The idea was born from their love of the Great Barrier Reef, their oceanic neighbor, and their appreciation for handiwork and the community it can create, simply by participation. Margaret, with a background in physics, math and science communication, and Christine, a professor of experimental writing and feminism, created a revolutionary art program to engage the public in coral reef science.

Margaret has a simple gut check when it comes to science communication: know what your goal is. While a lot of scientists would like to share their work in great, complex terms, she says the ultimate goal is to put science into an appropriate context for your audience. For the Werthiem sisters, that context is the cozy art of crochet.

Using handiwork as a launching pad, they started conversations about the plights of coral reefs, especially in a warming climate. The project, filled with delicate and intricate coral reefs crafted from multi-colored yarn, has been traveling around the world for more than 10 years. There is even a new reef installation using trash and plastics.

The crocheted corals display hyperbolic geometry, a type of geometry that is neither planar nor spherical; Picture hyperbolic geometry as a sort of saddle shape with curves and dips. Nature loves hyperbolic geometry and you can see examples of it in the sea (sea slugs and corals) or in your salad bowl (curly kale leaves). As it turns out, crochet is a perfect medium for creating rippled, ruffled edges seen in corals.

Lettuce sea slug. Credit: Laszlo Ilyes Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Kale. Credit: Azboomer Pixabay


An example of hyperbolic geometry used for crocheted coral reefs. From the Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring. Credit: IFF

People are invited to contribute to the Crochet Coral Reef project through workshops. At the workshops, participants crochet corals, adding their creations to the touring art instillation. In that approachable environment they end up being treated to scientific discussions of mathematics, marine biology, global warming and environmental conservation.

The Fohr Satellite Reef, Germany, with Margaret Wertheim in the background. From the Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim. Credit: IFF

So far, the workshops have welcomed more than 8,000 people, most of whom are women, on five continents. And after 10 years, the Wertheim sisters still get requests from people to participate in workshops. “As a science communicator, and I’ve been one for 35 years, I’ve never seen any science communication that’s had this kind of grassroots engagement, ever,” said Margaret.

Just this October, students at UC Santa Cruz held a workshop, and will host their own satellite reef starting in February. Rachel Nelson, Institute of the Arts and Sciences curator and program manager at UCSC, says that the crochet workshops have brought 250 students and a couple hundred more community members to the project. “People are eager to figure out ways to talk about climate change,” says Nelson. And although the topics of climate change and hyperbolic geometry might be considered weighty, the event stays fun. “The atmosphere is light,” said Nelson. “When people are crocheting, there’s a real community organizing atmosphere.” She said that the workshops have a unique way of being intergenerational and welcoming that is unique in scientific art events. “Boundaries were eroded and brought people together with the issue—there’s commonality,” said Nelson. “I was surprised that people who normally scoff at crochet, didn’t anymore.”

Nelson said at their workshop, the project naturally encouraged the older women in the group to become the crochet teachers. “The lovely part is that the project draws on knowledge from members of the society that already know how to crochet. They are the experts—these older women who would not normally be asked for knowledge in our society.” All while opening up a forum to talk about climate change.

Margaret said engaging women in handiwork is a gateway to having deeper discussions about science and math in a non-threatening and very different way. Women leave the workshops having contributed to a scientific art installation while gaining a greater understanding of math and conservation. Margaret sums up the experience, saying, “You can see how meaningful and empowering it is for them to see that yes, they can understand deep mathematical concepts.”

Understanding the health and perils facing coral reefs around the world is a perfect example of why science communication, in many forms, is so crucial. Curt Storlazzi, a coral researcher at the U.S. Geological Survey- Pacific Coastal and Marine Science Center in Santa Cruz, California, says that as a Federal employee, he fully understands that good science communication is key to reaching the public.

“We’re the Federal government and we’re here to serve the American people to provide science to save lives and dollars,” says Storlazzi. Although he knows that people need to understand what scientists do and how their research affects their everyday lives, time and resources can be limited for outreach and science communication. “We spend all our time writing these technical reports and communicate our science to other scientists,” he said. He knows there are huge ranges of audiences for science, but research can seem nebulous to the public without good science communication.

Wertheim agrees, and encourages science communicators to write outside the box. During her career, Wertheim has science columns for women’s magazines such as Australian Vogue and Elle. By simply writing in a different tone than a dedicated science magazine like Discover or New Scientist, she was able to share science with new audience. “I think there’s huge amounts of people who want to engage with science, are hungering to engage with science—they’ve just not been offered ways that are interesting, appealing and accessible to them,” says Wertheim.

Knowing your audience and connecting with people really is the ultimate goal for science communication. Storlazzi said, “I think that in this day and age, there’s been such backlash against science, which is horrible,” said Storlazzi. He espouses that science communication is more important than ever. “Scientists need interpreters who can put it in the right context.”

Margaret’s experience with the Crochet Coral Reef project over the past 12 years leaves her with hope for the future of science. “A lot of people think we live in a community that’s anti-science. I don’t actually believe that,” she said.  She said new audiences to science need to be engaged through new channels. “Those of us who care about science, who care about communication should branch out in new ways to reach audiences that aren’t already in the loop.”

The Reef is is currently on display at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York; from February through May, 2017 it will be shown at the University of California, Santa Cruz.