Knit a Scarf, Solve a Mathematical Mystery

By Melissa Lafsky | June 3, 2008 2:44 pm

knittingWhile new research indicates that “real life” examples may not be the best way to teach mathematical concepts, they appear to be helping an already learned bunch of mathematicians solve problems—particularly when it comes to handicraft. Scienceline has an update on the continued advances that mathematicians are making with yarn as a means of studying the geometry of the natural world.

The “knitting revolution” began a few years ago when Daina Taimina, a mathematics professor at Cornell, crocheted one of the first physical models of a hyperbolic shape—which, given that hyperbolic space expands exponentially, was no minor feat. Now, a group of math professors (all of whom are female—apparently male mathematicians aren’t as into the handicraft solution) has been following up on the so-called “intersection of math and craft,” applying Taimina’s yarn-ready techniques to other mathematical models.

The list includes Carolyn Yackel of Mercer University in Atlanta, Hinke Osinga of the University of Bristol, and Sarah-Marie Belcastro of Smith College. Osinga has been tackling the Lorenz manifold, which models how objects move through a chaotic space such as a large body of water or an atmosphere. Belcastro, meanwhile, has been busy designing a mathematic proof showing that any topological surface can be knit. And Yackel has been researching ways to map out points on a sphere using the patterns created inside Japanese Temari, balls made from colored strings wrapped around a circular piece of wood or plastic. Thus far, the researchers have been delighted with their results, and Yackel and Belcastro have even co-edited a book, Making Mathematics with Needlework: Ten Papers and Ten Projects. Next up, maybe they’ll tackle the “sum of four cubes” problem with basket weaving.

  • wayne

    So what mathematical problem did they solve?

  • Kristi

    How to present hyperbolic geometry in a way that people can actually understand.

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