Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, 2005-ongoing. Photo © Institute For Figuring

Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, 2005-ongoing. Photo © Institute For Figuring

Crocheted Coral Reefs Raise Awareness of Real Reefs' Destruction

Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, 2005-ongoing. Photo © Institute For Figuring

Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, 2005-ongoing. Photo © Institute For Figuring

From now until January 22, the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York will take visitors underwater. Not in the literal sense—the museum will be drowning in expertly crocheted sea life as part of its Crochet Coral Reef: Toxic Seas exhibit. The showcases the work of sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, who started the Crochet Coral Reef project in 2005 in collaboration with the Institute for Figuring, a non-profit that melds science and math with art.

The Wertheims started their fiber reef when they learned pollution and global warming may soon completely destroy the Great Barrier Reef in their home country of Australia. Over the next few years of crocheting, the replica reef took over their home. Soon, they encouraged others to join in, making it one of the largest community art projects in the world. Since its inception, the project has grown to include around 8000 participants.

Anyone can start creating a satellite reef out of anything that can be crocheted (like wire, yarn, or even strips of fabric). But to have it be an official satellite reef, interested crocheters need to contact the Institute for Figuring, which will ask for a fee based on a sliding scale to help pay for the satellite reef’s community outreach and workshops.

Each fiber reef is created according to the principles of hyperbolic crochet, a process that uses a geometric formula to create mathematically pure crocheted shapes. The beauty of hyperbolic crochet lies in its simplicity; it’s basically just repeating one process over and over again. The initial pattern for beginners is a hyperbolic plane, a series of single crochets and increases—a base chain of any number, followed by single crochets with an increase at set intervals. The finished product is a sheet of cloth with wavy edges that curl in among themselves.

CrochetCoral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring, 2005-ongoing. Photo © Institute For Figuring

To make other coral types, each crocheter slightly alters the pattern by changing the increase intervals, adding in other stitch types, or otherwise altering the base chain to produce an endless amount of reef-life forms—replicating the math inherent in live reefs. Reefs in the wild are often created with naturally occurring hyperbolic geometry, which packs as much surface area into a small space as possible, creating a surface similar to the human brain’s folded appearance.

“It turns out that hyperbolic structures are very common in nature, and the place where lots of people encounter them is coral reefs,” Margaret Wertheim told Guernica in an interview last year. “Sea slugs, and a lot of other organisms with frilly forms, are biological manifestations of hyperbolic geometry.” Coral pieces can be crocheted flat, in a round, or starting from a single point to create a spiraled shape. Every piece will form differently depending on the algorithm, gauge, and yarn.

In addition to shedding light on the issues facing coral reefs today and practicing applied mathematics, the Crochet Coral Reef is also breaking gender boundaries in the science world. Most of the Crochet Reefers are women, while men are generally over-represented in STEM disciplines. That said, the majority of the Crochet Coral Reef’s funding comes not from scientific foundations but from the art world. As Wertheim told Guernica, traditional science funders generally are uninterested in the project. At one point, a senior program office told her that he’d “find it hard to convince [his] board that there is any real science in a bunch of women knitting.”

But although she likes to crochet, Wertheim is also a physicist and science writer; one of her personal goals is to increase female participation in the sciences. That’s also one of her goals with the Crochet Reef Project.

“The Crochet Coral Reef project offers a kind of feminist metaphor for how we might approach the problems of global warming through collective action,” she said in the interview. “Rather than relying on a few individual geniuses inventing some technological solution, let’s try and think about this together.”

Everyday Household Items Made From Black Plastic Can Be Harmful to Human Health

It would be difficult to get through an entire day without coming into contact with plastic, but too much exposure to certain kinds of the material could pose a health risk, according to new research. A study by the University of Plymouth in England has revealed "significant and widespread contamination" of everyday items containing black plastic, such as thermos cups, toys, coat hangers, and Christmas decorations, Co.Design reports.

Black plastic isn't widely recycled because its dark pigment makes it hard for many plastic sorting facilities to detect it via infrared radiation. Nevertheless, the plastic parts of old electronic devices like laptops and music players are often repurposed into common household items. Researchers used X-ray fluorescence spectrometers to examine 600 black plastic items and found the presence of additives that can be harmful to human health, such as bromine, antimony, and lead. Historically, bromine has been used in electronic devices to prevent them from catching fire, but they’re not suitable for food containers or other items (like children's toys) that can come into contact with one's mouth. Their findings were published in Environment International.

"Black plastic may be aesthetically pleasing, but this study confirms that the recycling of plastic from electronic waste is introducing harmful chemicals into consumer products," the study's author, Andrew Turner, said in a statement released by the university. "That is something the public would obviously not expect, or wish, to see and there has previously been very little research exploring this."

As Co. Design points out, the greatest concern is cooking utensils, especially food containers. In the UK, some businesses have vowed to stop using black plastic, including supermarket chains Waitrose and Tesco. In Toronto, some businesses are considering swapping out their black plastics (like coffee cup lids) for materials that can be recycled more easily.

Another University of Plymouth study from January found toxic elements in second-hand children's toys, including bromine, lead, and other substances that can be toxic over time. Beyond the risk to human health, black plastic also harms the environment and introduces contaminants to beaches, the researchers found.

[h/t Co.Design]

Climate Change Is Making It Hard for Bears to Hibernate Through the Winter

What was once a rare sight—a bear wandering outside its den before springtime—has become increasingly common, thanks to climate change. As The New York Times reports, warming temperatures are waking American black bears from hibernation earlier than ever, and in some cases, preventing them from settling down for the winter in the first place.

Hibernation is a vital part of the black bear's life cycle. When awake, a bear must consume at least 11 to 18 pounds of food per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Withdrawing for the winter allows it to survive the food scarcity that comes with the colder months.

But as climate change promotes certain extreme weather patterns in the western U.S., the region's black bear population has begun to act differently. Last year the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada saw unusually high levels of snowfall, and the excess moisture produced an abundant pine nut crop. This past winter, snowfall in the area hit near-record lows, leaving the pine nuts exposed on the ground for a longer period. The prolonged access to food in the area meant some bears started hibernating later or just never got around to it.

Many of the bears that did eventually crawl into their dens were woken up ahead of schedule this year. According to a 2017 study, for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In January 2018, temperatures in the Pine Nut Mountains reached 5.4°C above the 20th-century average for the region.

Some years bears emerge from hibernation during droughts, which are exacerbated by climate change, and food is hard to come by. When that's the case, bears may end up on private property, raiding people's trash cans and bird feeders and sometimes breaking into their homes. Fatal bear attacks on humans aren't common: The more likely scenario is that the so-called problem bear will be euthanized. Bear management groups will often try other strategies, like capture and release and aversive conditioning, before resorting to this option. Nonetheless, dozens of bears are euthanized by states each year.

Black bears aren't the only ursine species being forced to adapt to global warming. In the Arctic, polar bears are losing the sea ice they need to hunt marine mammals, and many of them are moving onto land in search of prey. Climate change is pushing both species of bears toward human-populated territory, which means conflicts between the bears and people will only increase from here.

[h/t The New York Times]


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