Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hoopla, Buzz, and Gimmick

Note: There was an errant login popup on my blog until today 5/29/11. It has now been fixed. Thanks for my friend, Dawg for pointing it out!

I think that, when you're in your thirties (as I am), you develop a particular pattern of thinking. Your brain develops a habit of dealing with ideas, both new and old, and you develop attitudes towards things that kick in immediately, once your brain has figured out how to categorize them. For example, what happens to you when you think about food, religion, family, news from abroad, your neighbours, your boss, your work...? What are your first thoughts, and how do you feel when you think them?

I read an interesting article the other day from The Guardian about science presented as art for the public, or sci-art.

My first reaction: Oh great. Another bunch of pretentious crap with contrived meaning.

I've been trying to train myself out of such reactions, because quite frankly, I'm starting to sound a lot like Mr. Burns out of The Simpsons. There's got to be more to life than being a clever cynic. And it's a lonely thing to be.

So, scanning inside my head and purging myself of such negativity, I saved the article and came back to it later to read properly. What is sci-art? What does it look like?

I wandered through the article and came upon a link of a video about a crochet display about the beautiful math of coral. It was created, stitch-by-stitch, not just by one person, but by thousands of people around the world. Started in response to the increasing coverage in the news as to how global warming effects coral reef systems, the people who started making this were invited to fill a 3000 square-foot galley in the Warhol Museum as part of an exhibit about global warming. Eight months of frantic crocheting later, and they did fill it, but the whole project took on a viral form.

Margaret Wertheim explains in the video:
The frilly, crenelated form that coral makes is a form of geometry known as hyperbolic geometry. The only way that mathematicians know how to model this structure is by crochet. It's almost impossible to model it any other way, and it's almost impossible to model it with computers.
I heard this and I thought, That means I can do something that a computer struggles with. I can make something that mathematicians can't make. Cool.

If you watch the rest of the video, Margaret goes on to explain how this form occurs not just in coral, but in lettuce, sea slugs, mushrooms... it's everywhere. And the mathematicians theorized that this structure was impossible. They just couldn't see it.

Until someone picked up a crochet hook and said, "There you go."

I love the idea that not all of science needs to be approached by people who get lost in their heads, who are so cerebral that they don't take the time to see the shapes in their lettuce or the colours of their candy. I also love the idea that people can be engaged in these "complex" ideas if they are just willing to look, play with, and experiment with the world around them.

Ok, so what's the point of all this?

The point is that, the next time I see an installation of art that claims to have a message for me, I think it's worth me stopping and seeing what that message is. Someone has something to to say, and the message might not be what is written on the signage of the exhibit.

I think that I can allow myself to be engaged, to exercise my brain and pull it away from its usual paths to cynicism. I might not agree with what is being presented, but I am giving myself the opportunity to do some mind yoga, to stretch myself and to examine what is happening in that melon between my shoulders.

It might be hoopla, buzz and gimmick, but perhaps those terms should take on new definitions. Perhaps those words can be synonyms for brain-challengers, mind-sparkers, or social-engagement-pushers.

What is the product of this? I'm not sure, but people are discussing, people are using their brains, working through ideas, working through problems, not being passive, not just receiving information, but creating new thoughts, new processes, new connections. That's what it means to grow, to be alive.

Like coral.


  1. That's so lovely! I'm sure the people behind the crochet reef would really love that line about "I can do something that a computer struggles with. I can make something that mathematicians can't make."

  2. @Alice: Thanks for stopping by! I should try to find those folks and let them know I'm talking about them. It was such an inspiring video.