Sitting in a meeting on informal science education recently, I was intrigued to see a respected academic working on her knitting.  And she wasn’t the only one.  Now I may have had a something of a sheltered life, but in over twenty years of attending scientific conferences and workshops, I think this was the first time I had come across public acts of wool-work.

I was fascinated.

This was reinforced the other week when, following Tweets from a science policy event at the British Library the Science Blogging Talkfest in London, Stephen Curry announced “I can confirm that @alicebell is indeed knitting.”

Alice Bell’s “leaf scarf” – clearly, knitting is about more than woolly jumpers and never-ending scarves!

As well as being a lecturer in science communication at Imperial College, Alice Bell is also something of a knitting maven.  So I asked her whether there was anything I should be reading to explore this new-found fascination with knitting in meetings.

Instead, Alice threw me down the metaphorical rabbit-hole! Who knew there was such a rich intersection between science, math, and working with yarn?

I was aware of the work on modeling hyperbolic geometries by Daina Taimina of Cornell University, using crochet. (can I mention crochet in a knitting blog?)  But, as I’m discovering, there’s a whole sub-culture of knitting and crocheting science out there!

Alice pointed me to this piece she wrote last year that touches on science and mathematics-themed knitting.  Based on an interview with Wired UK, it explores a seemingly growing fascination with knitting on the web.  Alice used the piece to explain why the explosion of the web-based knitting community is about more than just a “nerdish inclination” to use knitting as a way of realizing coded information and expressing science-themed ideas.  But this is certainly an aspect of knitting that she is no stranger to.  According to the Wired article, she has

…knitted a scarf that depicts the power spectrum of cosmic radiation, and other Ravelry users have recreated the emission spectrum of caesium and  reimagined Klein bottles as hats.  But why are knitters looking to science – or, indeed, scientists turning to knitting? [Ravelry is a popular knitting website]

“I think it’s partly the maths,” Bell says.  “Creating objects out of coded formulae – that’s what a knitting pattern is.”

Knitting patterns as code for complex three dimensional structures – it’s an idea that makes perfect sense when you think about it.  After all, DNA uses sequences of four molecules to code for complex protein structures, so why not use deceptively simple “knit one purl one” – type sequences to construct complex shapes?

Of course there are limitations here as you would expect, but it’s surprising what can be done with a ball of wool and a few needles.  Alice sent me this link to Wooly Thoughts – the work of a husband and wife team of mathematical knitwear designers.

The “illusion knitting” is pretty impressive – where the image only becomes apparent when the piece is viewed at the correct angle.  Continuing the DNA theme, Alice Bell has used the technique for what she calls her “Rosalind Scarf” (after Rosalind Franklin, naturally), which only reveals its embedded double-helix structure to those that know how to see it – messages within messages here methinks!

Knitting and crocheting as a means of creating complex geometrical forms has a long and illustrious history.  Alan Turing was often seen knitting Möbius strips and other shapes in his lunchtime apparently, according to this 2008 MSNBC piece.  The work of Taimina and others on exploring hyperbolic planes – and their relevance to biology – has been groundbreaking (I know it’s crochet, but Margaret Wertheim’s TED talk on crochet coral and complex math is excellent here).  There’s even a book on how to do explore math through knitting – Making Mathematics with Needlework: Ten Papers and Ten Projects.

And then there are the knitters who use their craft to visualize three dimensional objects.  From dissected frogs to neurons to three dimensional models of the brain.  Everything is fair game here, as this beautiful sequence of images from Discover Magazine illustrates.

Interested in DIY-microbes?  Forget synthetic biology – just download a knitting pattern!  The Big Microbe Knit at last year’s Manchester Science Festival featured instructions to create everything from a Salmonella bacterium to an H1N1 virus.

Karen Nordberg’s knitted brain

Clearly there’s a rich and complex intersection between science and knitting.  This is knitting as a method of storing, transmitting, manipulating and using information, as a way of realizing complex mathematical concepts and structures, and as a form of visualizing the world we live in in new and insightful ways.  It’s an area that is begging to be explored more thoroughly in the blogosphere.

But that’s a blog that will have to wait. In the meantime, I wanted to extract myself from the rabbit hole Alice Bell kindly opened up for me, and get back to where I started – knitting in scientific meetings.

So why don’t we see more knitting in scientific meetings?  Is it simply that these meetings are still often dominated by men, who – lets be honest – haven’t embraced knitting to the same extent as women have?  Are public displays of knitting deemed unprofessional and unbecoming at scientific conferences?  Or is it just that we’re a bunch of stuck-in-the-mud fuddy duddys, who are scared stiff of being pushed outside our comfort zone?

Knitting in meetings doesn’t seem to distract people if done discretely.  I suspect some knitters find it a useful way to remain focused on what is going on around them while keeping their hands busy.  And of course, if it’s a particularly tedious meeting, knitting is a less obviously antisocial way of coping than pulling out a good book or falling asleep!

There are even some suggested rules for knitting in meetings posted on the WhatIfKnits blog.  I particularly like rule 5:

Don’t be flashy. Certain kinds of knitting—socks on multiple double-points, for example, or colorwork involving several balls of yarn—can be particularly attention-getting for non-knitters, even if you have them mastered and don’t need to refer to patterns and the like (see 2). Remember, you knit because knitting is fascinating, but you don’t want to fascinate anyone else when there’s other work at hand.

To be honest, having seen meeting-knitting in action and reading about science-related knitting, I’m tempted to brush up on long-neglected knitting techniques (I think the last time I knitted something, I was elementary school age) and try some myself!

I wonder what the reaction would be if I calmly took out my (still hypothetical) needles and wool at the next scientific meeting I attend, and started to knit?

Would I attract the admiration of my fellow scientists as I challenged preconceived notions of what it means to be a male scientist in a notoriously conservative culture?

Or would I simply make an ass of myself?

I suspect the latter – although I’m not sure I’d ever have the guts to try it out and see.  But I must confess, I do like the idea of scientific meetings that are informal enough for people to indulge in public knitting.  And I have a suspicion that knitting isn’t such a bad way of maintaining concentration in such situations – as long as the rules are followed!

And of course, there is the intellectual stimulation of being involved in something that goes far beyond making scarves and woolly jumpers.

Maybe it is time for scientists to shrug off their cultural inhibitions, and embrace their inner-knitters!

Now, where to begin…

Update 7/26/10 – Huge apologies to Alice Bell for getting the venue where she was spotted knitting wrong (see comments below)!  It was, in fact, a Science Policy event at the British Library on July 12.

Andrew Maynard