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Kristen McDonnell’s brain hat.
Photo: Kristen McDonnell

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The March for Science Searches for Its Pussyhat

Marchers wearing brains, resistors, and double-helix strands on their heads will all be in Washington on Earth Day.

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YouTube knitting instructor Kristen McDonnell was checking the analytics for her website this January when she noticed that a 2015 Halloween post was, in her words, “going bonkers.”

The old tutorial showed how to knit a “sort of creepy” pink novelty hat that looks like a brain. Now, with the January 21st Women’s March fresh in public memory and plans for a Science March underway, the brain hat had been proposed as the next pussyhat. McDonnell’s pattern was going viral. “I had to upgrade my server,” she says.

The March for Science will take place April 22nd — Earth Day — in Washington, DC, along with over 400 satellite marches around the world. More than 840,000 people belong to a “secret” March for Science group on Facebook. Aside from an official T-shirt with an atom logo sold in black, blue, and gray, march organizers aren’t endorsing any unifying symbol or color scheme. That’s left crafters and costume enthusiasts arguing online about which accessories are best. Others say worrying about clothing is pointless. But getting the visuals right could help the march spread its cause of “robustly funded and publicly communicated science,” while the wrong look might weaken the message — or send a different one altogether.

Modeling the brain hat.
Photo: Kristen McDonnell

McDonnell has embraced the attention from science lovers and redesigned her site to highlight the brain hat. It’s a pretty straightforward design, which McDonnell wasn’t the first to think up. First, you knit a whole bunch of yarn tubing called I-cord. Then you stitch it onto a knit hat in two hemispheres of freestyle swirls. McDonnell sells a baseball cap version on Etsy starting at $44, and dozens of other Etsy sellers are offering their own brain hats for the march.

Parallels to the pussyhat are imperfect. For starters, there’s the time. McDonnell says making one classic brain hat from start to finish, including knitting a base hat and 17 feet of cords, took her more than 40 hours. But an average knitter could knock out a pussyhat during a couple nights of TV viewing — and use the next few nights to make extras for friends or strangers. Craft stores sell a little hand-cranked machine that can make the cords, but assembling them into a cerebral cortex is still a slog.

Impracticality aside, some science marchers worry that brain hats send the wrong message. Is a brain, commenters on Facebook and Reddit have asked, a boast that the wearer is smarter than everyone else? Couldn’t this kind of symbolism backfire and make certain people feel even more alienated from science?

An alternative came from Heidi Arjes, a Stanford microbiology and bioengineering postdoc and knitting blogger. In mid-February, she published a hat she’d designed for the Science March. It’s blue and white, with the zigzag that represents a resistor (get it?) in circuitry diagrams. “The current administration's disregard for scientific facts is troubling and, quite frankly, very frightening,” she wrote in her post. When she shared the resistor hat on Facebook, it got 13,000 likes.

Arjes soon heard from two other scientists inviting her to join their newly launched site, Project Thinking Cap. Now the three of them — all female postdocs, Arjes points out — are rallying people to knit hats of all styles and send them to Washington for the march, like the Pussyhat Project did. In honor of Earth Day, they’re enforcing a color scheme of blue and green.

Heidi Arjes in her Resistor cap.
Photo: @craftimism

“We’re hoping it’ll look like the Earth or the ocean from above,” Arjes says.

Besides the resistor hats, another popular choice is a set of DNA knits designed by Massachusetts biochemist Rebecca Roush Brown. She shared the clever double-helix patterns on her blog, ChemKnits. Brown also has a YouTube channel. (“It seems like there are quite a few scientists who are also knitters,” Arjes says.)

The Earth colors crew aren’t against brain hats. Elise Anderson, a knitting blogger in Colorado who’s been collecting blue and green hat designs, says pink looks nice with green. “What I want to see is the green and the blue kind of like glue,” she says. “Like the mortar in between things.” Anderson helps Arjes run March for Science knitting groups on Facebook and on the knitting site Ravelry.

Brown, the creator of the DNA hats, thinks the brain hat is “actually really cool.” But, she adds diplomatically, she “wouldn’t necessarily wear it day-to-day.”

Meanwhile, brain hat creator McDonnell has been invited to schools and knitting groups to help people prepare their yarn cerebra. She’s excited to hear about anyone taking up knitting needles, whether they’re crafting pink brains or blue resistors. She plans to be at her local march in San Francisco.

Not everyone is so agreeable. On Facebook, people have argued that pink hats are “ripping off” the Women’s March, that brain hats are ugly, and that the brains ought to be gray anyway. They’ve argued that talking about clothing is frivolous, and that it will be too hot in DC in late April for any kind of hat. (Brown has made her DNA pattern into lightweight cotton hats and headbands for warm weather; Arjes put her resistor design onto stretch fabric for a workout-style headband.) When some in the group posted pictures of their pussyhats, others told them to stay on message.

What, exactly, is the message of the March for Science? It’s a question the organizers have struggled with. They call the march “nonpartisan,” but wrote in a March 9th statement, “It was a mistake to ever imply that the March for Science is apolitical.” The event’s diversity statement, which currently says that “Inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility are central to the mission” of the march, has been revised several times under criticism that it went both too far and not far enough. Disagreements over how to address issues such as racial diversity and gender equality have led some organizers to quit, as reported in STAT.

DNA GENE-ie hats from Rebecca Roush Brown.
Photo: Rebecca Roush Brown

Nicole Doerr, a University of Copenhagen sociology professor who studies protest movements, says thinking about the symbolism of the march isn’t frivolous at all. “It’s extremely important,” she says.

The pink pussyhats of the Women’s March were a powerful, successful symbol, Doerr explains. Something like that is “creating a collective identity.” But she doesn’t expect brain hats to have the same sticking power. “A brain doesn’t look particularly beautiful, so people won’t wear it after the march,” she says.

As for the concern over elitism, Doerr says a good protest symbol should reach out to different groups of people. Maybe something appealing and Earth-related could work, but she doesn’t think hats in mixed blues and greens will be very striking: “Everyone in the US wears blue hats.”

On April 22nd, the only unifying factor may be variety. Marchers have knitted and crocheted globes, leaves, neurons, water molecules, Erlenmeyer flasks, and rocket ships into hats. They’ve made Möbius strip headbands and threaded live plants into mesh hats. They’ve drawn oceans and starscapes onto baseball caps with Sharpies.

As with any experiment done in the wild, the results of the March for Science might be messy — but they can still be significant. “The most important thing is that people get out and march in support of science,” Arjes says. “Not necessarily what they wear.”

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