Knitting science

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?

The Rosalind Scarf, by Alice Bell

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?

Do It Yourself biology - knitting-style

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.

38 thoughts on “Knitting science”

  1. Knitting is also great for those long plane rides to and from conference destinations. I bring my knitting, usually socks, to conferences, but haven’t been brave enough to knit during sessions yet. At my last conference, I was busy with a nursing infant, and couldn’t balance both her AND point sticks, but next year….

    1. I’m surprised they allow you to take knitting needles on the plane.
      I’ve seen them confiscated from a poor old lady who was bereft at not being able to knit on a flight to Australia.

      1. Knitting needles are allowed on flights, according to the TSA. I flew from the US to Scotland and back with my 47 inch metal-tipped magic loop needle, no problem. Magic loop is great for knitting on planes, since you don’t have to worry about the ends of your needles poking your neighbor.

      1. yes – take bamboo needles or now there are plastic needles that are flexible. but i think only business class has enough room for knitting on long needles. crochet hooks are better on airplanes.

    2. Each plane ride this year has equaled 1 to 2 completed mittens! It’s a terrific icebreaker while waiting in an airport. I’ve had many enjoyable conversations with folks who’ve watched me knit for a while and then come over and told me about their own projects or their mom’s or grandma’s.

      The knitting/crocheting shop I frequent participated in creating objects for the crochet coral project and had samples available to examine – I had fun trying the technique myself.

  2. Well that explains the 15 new twitter followers when I logged on this afternoon.

    I did knit during the science policy event at the British Library the other week, and then at the UK Congress of Science Journalists, when I was in the audience, but not the blogging “talkfest”, which I chaired. Shocking lack of accuracy over July’s London science hashtag’s there :)

    Don’t even start the knitting of a plane issue. The number of forum threads devoted to this topic is shocking… rabbit hole within rabbit hole. Most airlines and nearly every airport allow knitting needles now (they are generally less dangerous than a pen) but, annoyingly, neither Gatwick or Heathrow does. Even bamboo (it’s just they don’t show up so easily). My favourite trick for this is acechick’s umbrella approach.

    1. A shocking error – sorry Alice! My editor deserves to be shot, although that would involve a certain amount of self-mutilation. Although personally I blame the error on there being way too many great science meetings in London, that us expats can only drool over from a distance…

      Error corrected – it was indeed the event at the British Library on July 12, and Stephen was responding to your tweet where you proclaimed…”I’m going to knit.” :-)

  3. The blog about knitting bacteria on Promega Connections (thanks for the link by the way) started a lunch-time knitting group of closet science/tech knitters at Promega. Who knew? Also, there is a Ravelry group, scientific knitters, where you can go for help on knitting, PCR, organic synthesis or scientific copy editing.

  4. I notice that your link to Making Mathematics with Needlework: Ten Papers and Ten Projects goes nowhere. Perhaps you wanted to link the book’s homepage
    or the publisher’s page
    Also, a second book is in the works (though with less knitting content):

    I generally use circular needles for flat work anyway, so I don’t have problems with enough room to knit on airplanes or in meetings.

    1. Thanks for the catch and apologies about that – it was supposed to be the top link in your comment, but a gremlin clearly got into the works!

      The link should be working now.

      Thanks also to the link to the second book – looks interesting!

  5. Oh Andrew, I can’t wait for your first knitting project! Do begin, just something you know small …. or even nano (wink, wink) …. and then do share your efforts with us, it will open up a whole new perspective on life… we do need more knitters to fill conferences….. and I am sure there is lots of help out there for you

    1. Ha – thanks Rye. Expect to receive a suitably subtle “nano” scarf next time I’m in Melbourne – I was thinking something using “illusion” knitting would be appropriate :-)

  6. In addition to the main Woolly Thoughts site (mentioned in the article) we now have a site devoted to Illusion Knitting There is currently a great deal of interest in Illusion Knitting and we have developed a new system of charting which makes the process much easier but also allows you to use much more complex images.

    The site has lots of free tutorials. It is still under construction so there is still more to come.

  7. Great post! As a grad student at U of M over the past few years, I have noticed more and more students knitting/crocheting during classes. I started doing this myself and found I was far more engaged and focused than when I wasn’t doing something with my hands – especially when looking out over a sea of laptops surfing the web, playing games and updating facebook statuses.

  8. What a fantastic blog! Believe it or not, this is the chosen subject area for my Textiles Masters project at Bath Spa University, UK and has really helped with my initial research into the links between science, maths and knitting. I am coming at this totally from the perspective of a knit designer so any scientific input would be most appreciated! I am doing most of my research online so if anyones interested please take a look!

  9. The Bucky Ball comment pushed me over the edge. As an avid yarn-worker (mostly crochet & filet crochet lace, which is very pixelated), I’d been debating whether I had anything to offer that hadn’t already been said by more worthy folk such as Daina and Alice. But Bucky Balls! I’d been thinking the whole time I read this post that Andrew forgot origami, which is my personal favorite craft to do in meetings, is inextricably inked to many sciences (notably nanotech and outer space vehicle design) and which is far better suited to creating Bucky Balls.

    1. Julie: I have a large canvas bag that reads

      because falling asleep
      IS RUDE.

      Capitalized lines are in MUCH larger type than the middle line.

  10. You also need to know about the worldwide coral reef knitting and crocheting project, eg. Adelaide [Australia] Royal Institute is currently assembling its own Reef through public knit/crochet-ins, rallied via Social Media. eg,

    Years ago I also discovered that quite a few women psychiatrists make miniature quilts while sitting in conferences! I spotted two at a New York conference and my local shrink revealed she did it as well!

    1. HAH!!! I knew it! Your knitting group was just a front for your reoioutvlnary and disruptive agenda! (But seriously, banning a knitting group that has to be some of the saddest behaviour I have heard in a long time.)

  11. …and yet my knitted scale model of the solar system scarf doesn’t seem to sell well – nor does the pattern. (Piece is worked to-scale, where Mercury = one stitch and extrapolated from there – the maths took a bit under 3 hours…)

  12. I have taken crochet projects with hooks and safety scissors on the plane more than once with no problems. Also, if you travel with knit or crochet things people will always tell you where the cool local yarn stores are when you visit! I haven’t taken needlework to a science conference but it is very popular at science fiction conventions (you can find men who knit, crochet or sew there too). If I were established in my field I would consider taking needlework to a professional meeting (early in my career I would probably be focusing on networking).

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