Sunday, January 8, 2012

Origami May Save Your Life

by Drew Martin
I watched a fascinating documentary yesterday about origami: Between the Folds: Exploring Origami. The film is incredibly well constructed because of the way it takes you deeper and deeper into the world of origami. It starts off with representational origami and the realism achieved by origami artists such as Michael LaFosse, who is the only origami maker who also makes his own paper and he makes the paper with a piece in mind, i.e. double-sided black and yellow for a toucan. Then there is Dr. Robert J. Lang who holds two Caltech degrees and gave up a full-time gig at Caltech to pursue origami. As an art form, origami is unique; it is a metamorphic art, as opposed to additive or subtractive art. Its secrets and beauty are in the folding, which its followers explain is everywhere: the folding of fabric, sound waves, mountains, galaxies, DNA...everything. Some origami makers say it is improvisational like jazz, while others claim it is more like sonatas or fugues. Lang, who gives his work opus numbers, offers an analogy between music and the laws of paper, "What you can accomplish is strongly governed by mathematical laws of music; the harmonic ratios between the notes and rhythms." And this is where the documentary gets even more interesting. Anyone who is anyone in the origami world agrees, Akira Yoshizawa (1911-2005) was the master who took the basics of school-kid origami and made it an art form and a science. Dr. Thomas Hull, a mathematics professor at Merrimack College, speaks about math as all of its subjects together and says that origami exhibits this including: geometry, number theory, abstract algebra, linear algebra with matrices, and "weird-bizarre" geometry like geometry of the sphere. Dr. Erik Demaine is a 30-year-old professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the top origami theorist. He went to college at 12, got his bachelor's degree at 14 and his Ph.D. at 20, with his dissertation on computational origami. He joined the MIT faculty at that time and received the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship "Genius Award" two years later in 2003. If you think folding paper is being taken too seriously, consider the practical applications: the airbag algorithm came from the design of artistic origami and origami design is being used in the space industry to engineer foldable satellite parts that can be packed into rockets and unfurled in space. Demaine also touches upon pharmaceutical applications - how proteins fold determine good health or disease and being able to create proteins with a certain fold would make it possible to target certain viruses.