I have met some truly talented communicators in my life span as a freelance writer. I have been on an assignment to write a story about things as technical and complex as a bridge design or a heart operation and come across a person who was so passionate about his or her field that I was pulled in. Not only was it thrilling, it made understanding the subject much easier. In the best cases, my newfound knowledge and enthusiasm made its way into the written word.
I'd call it the merger of art and science.
I am a regular listener of a program called "On Being with Krista Tippett," a Peabody Award-winning public radio show with fascinating and diverse guests. One by one they provide their perspective on what it means to be human, and alive in our day and age.
Most of the guests are all of these things: full of ideas, good communicators, charismatic and stimulating. But one in particular serves as an example of how to explain complex concepts in a way that people can understand.
The guest's name is Marlene Wertheim, and she is among other things, a physicist, author, and co-creator of a provocative work of art called the "Crochet Coral Reef." From the beginning of the interview it was clear that Wertheim refuses to accept assumptions – she challenges everything when it comes to left/right brain, or the distinctions between art and science. When it became clear that there were no books on physics that people could understand, she wrote one, Pythagoras' Trousers. Her life's work has become putting the thrill of scientific questions into context, across human history and culture.
In other words, humanizing science.
Playing with Ideas
In 2005, Marlene and her twin sister Christine (who is an artist) collaborated on a perfect specimen of this concept with what the website calls "a wooly celebration of the intersection of higher geometry and feminine handicraft, and a testimony to the disappearing wonders of the marine world."
The Wertheim sisters, who grew up in Australia near the Great Coral Reef, started from the Crochet Coral Reef exhibitconcept that reef organisms are biological manifestations of a mathematical concept called "hyperbolic geometry." These models can only be duplicated, it was discovered by a Latvian mathematician scientist who grew up knitting and crocheting, through a specific kind of crochet work. Bit by bit these women and the hundreds who joined them have created artificial reefs of nature-inspired yarn. The idea is to call attention to the disappearance of these magnificent structures due to ocean warming.
It's a fantastic story, still in the making. But what strikes me is the communication aspect: these wonderfully category-defiant people found a way to make understandable an extremely complex concept that would otherwise be only known to scientists. And they did it with some bits of yarn and a traditionally domestic art. It's what Marlene Wertheim calls "embodying ideas so you can play with them."
And then there's the next level, which I'll just let Ms. Wertheim explain: "the Crochet Coral Reef project is a metaphor . . . Each coral polyp is a tiny insignificant little critter with almost no power of its own. But when billions of coral polyps come together, they can build the Great Barrier Reef, the largest living thing on earth and first living thing that you can see from outer space."
So many worlds collide, so many threads come together. Communication-wise, this is a world-class "aha!" moment. All of our efforts cannot be this majestic, but we can strive to be clear and innovative thinkers, and in that way make our message heard.
Find out more about the Crochet Coral Reef here.
Listen to the podcast of the Marlene Wertheim episode of "On Being with Krista Tippett" here.
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