Margaret Wertheim on the value of embodied knowledge

Since this past summer I have been obsessed with Hyperbolic crochet, an approach that has been adapted for creating crocheted sea creatures and modeling other aspects of other living organisms. I’ve been obsessed because the making approach matches how I go about my math making life — make a rule, see what happens, revise, experiment, repeat. Over winter break my crochet investigations morphed (ha! morphing morphology!) into an invention of crocheted moebius/topology loops. I applied the the increase technique I had been using to create ruffled and curved crocheted objects and was curious to see what might happen. Here’s an example of what I’ve been making:

I recently watched a TED talk from Margaret Wortheim titled “The beautiful math of coral” but it is about SO MUCH MORE!

It’s about learning and thinking.

It’s about how engaging in mathematical investigations in a variety of modalities can contribute to the deepest learning and understanding.

It’s about the idea that just because you’re not at the highest levels of academia doesn’t mean you can’t engage in and even <gasp> grasp the most important concepts of complex mathematical ideas.

Below are some excerpts from her talk. Specifically, these are the words that mean the most to me as someone who does not necessarily want spend much time in any symbolic realm and who would prefer to be creating meaning and understanding by doing, making, and thinking…all at the same time.

The full video of her talk can be found at the end of this post.


One of the things that’s important here is that these things suggest the importance and value of embodied knowledge. We live in a society that completely tends to valorize symbolic forms of representation–algebraic representations,equations, codes. We live in a society that’s obsessed with presenting information in this way, teaching information in this way. But through this sort of modality, crochet, other plastic forms of play —people can be engaged with the most abstract, high-powered, theoretical ideas…”

“We live in a society now where we have lots of think tanks, where great minds go to think about the world. They write these great symbolic treatises called books, and papers, and op-ed articles. We want to propose, [her sister] Chrissy and I…what we want to propose is that the highest levels of abstraction, things like mathematics, computing, logic, etc. —all of this can be engaged with, not just through purely cerebral algebraic symbolic methods, but by literally, physically playing with ideas.

Watch Margaret’s succinct and brilliant TED talk.


Malke Rosenfeld is a dance teaching artist, author, editor, math explorer, and presenter whose interests focus on the learning that happens at the intersection of math and the moving body. She delights in creating rich environments in which children and adults can explore, make, play, and talk math based on their own questions and inclinations.

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