22 Dec 2014

Origami and the laws of physics

A physicist’s take on an ancient art has provided new solutions for folding telescopes and airbags. By Jason England.

Robert Lang's origami Black Forest cuckoo clock of 1987. More at www.langorigami.comCredit: Robert Lang/ www.langorigami.com

It’s rare that an art form has enforceable rules. A sculptor is free to choose which material to use as well as the size of the finished piece. Painters are not told what to paint or which technique to use on the canvas. Indeed, the choice to paint on canvas is entirely theirs. Other arts may have established patterns, categories and forms, but rules are uncommon.

On the other hand, origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, is interesting because of its restrictions. Classic origami models should be created from a single sheet of paper – no cutting or gluing allowed. From this simple proposition a wonderful variety arises. Animals from antelope to zebra, human forms, musical instruments and even modern stealth aircraft have all been folded from one sheet. It is no wonder that origami has been called “an art of economy”.

The precise origins of origami are lost to history. Although paper was folded into a variety of shapes for use during ceremonies for the nobility and wealthy as early as the Heian period (794–1185 AD), what we would today consider “recreational origami” doesn’t appear to have developed until the middle of the 17th century, or possibly a little earlier. It took about 200 more years for what is arguably the first book on origami to appear. Sembazuru Orikata, or How to fold 1,000 cranes, was published in 1797. In the 20th century and now into the 21st, many modern origami masters emerged, but two deserve special mention.

Lang's elaborate beetle – an Allomyrina dichotoma – was first crafted in 2014Credit: Robert Lang/ www.langorigami.com

The first is Yoshizawa Akira. Yoshizawa is widely considered to have been the “grandmaster of origami”. He created tens of thousands of original models, and is also responsible for the rebirth of the art in the 1950s. In addition to his beautiful designs, Yoshizawa created the diagramming system of dotted lines and arrows to indicate fold directions. This symbolic notation allows origami creators and folders to follow instructions without having to read Japanese – or any other language for that matter. The Yoshizawa system, with only minor adjustments and additions, is still in use. In 1983 Emperor Hirohito awarded Yoshizawa the Order of the Rising Sun – one of Japan’s highest honours – for his promotion of Japanese culture.

Lang’s creation of a realistic cuckoo clock made him a sensation.

The second modern master is Robert Lang. Trained as a physicist and engineer, Lang was introduced to origami at the age of six. By his early teens he was creating original designs. He continued his study of origami while at Stanford University and Caltech where he was awarded his PhD in applied physics. The combination of his scientific background and his love of origami has enabled him to develop amazing designs and techniques. Just 40 years ago virtually all origami had the same stylised form it had at the turn of the century. No one would have confused an origami insect with the real thing. In fact, before the 1990s, few folders even attempted to create insects, as it was considered far too difficult to achieve any satisfactory realism with them. Lang certainly disproved that. With the advent of computer-aided designs and through the efforts of Lang and a few other artists, the traditional art form began to allow for hyper-realistic insects, crustaceans, and spiders to be folded, as well as hundreds of other designs formerly dismissed as impossible.

Lang’s creation of a realistic cuckoo clock from a single sheet of paper in the late 1980s made him a sensation in the origami world. It was just one of many innovations and discoveries on his part. Leaving his job as a physicist at Silicon Valley communications company JDS Uniphase in 2001, Lang devoted himself full time to origami, but didn’t entirely remove himself from the world of science; he continues to be involved in engineering and science through his origami research.

Lang has consulted with automobile safety equipment manufacturers on the optimal way to stow air bags, worked with members of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory on the best way to fit a 30-metre optical telescope into a rocket body without creasing the fragile lens membrane, and designed a sterile medical instrument pouch that can be opened without being contaminated.

With the confluence of maths and origami not yet 30 years old, Lang believes that continued research into the art will have even more to offer.

As he puts it: “Problems that you solve for aesthetic value only… turn out to have an application in the real world. And as weird and surprising as it may sound, origami may some day even save a life.”

Jason England is a magician based in Las Vegas and a renowned authority on casino gambling and card handling.