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When origami meets rocket science

Origami masters are pushing the limits of what one can make by folding paper and challenging an emerging field of study study called computational origami.

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By Rachel Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Robert J. Lang had a good career as a laser physicist. He worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, researching semiconductor lasers used in fiber-optic communications, before switching to a private technology firm in Silicon Valley, where he held positions such as chief scientist and vice president of research and development.

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Then in 2001, he gave it all up. To fold paper.

Lang, 49, is an origami master. Paper cranes? Pshaw. Try a rattlesnake with 1,500 scales, a life-size replica of comedian Drew Carey or an American flag that was photographed for the New York Times magazine. Lang is pushing the limits of what one can make by folding paper, but he's also a leader in an emerging field of study called computational origami, which he boils down to this question: "How do you use rules and math to create an object of art?"

"In both origami and science, you're discovering patterns and relationships that, in a sense, already existed before we discovered them," Lang says. "There's a joy of discovery and of being the first explorer in this little nook."

He and others are using the Japanese art form to solve scientific problems. About 10 years ago, for instance, Lang collaborated with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design a telescope lens that could go to space. Origami principles were ideal for the task because the lens, called the Eyeglass, needed to be big -- about the size of a football field -- once in space but also small enough to be shot into orbit by a rocket. A prototype demonstrated that hinged panes of glass could be used to compact the lens down to dimensions of no more than about 13 feet without degrading the optical performance. But the Eyeglass was never sent into space for lack of funding.

Lang has also worked on computer models for folding car air bags. Simulating air-bag deployment is important because otherwise auto manufacturers would have to crash a lot of cars to determine which ones are safe -- an expensive prospect.

Oxford University researchers have used origami techniques to design stents, which must be small enough for doctors to thread through a blood vessel but then pop open big enough to hold the artery or vein open.

"The things we do for fun and pleasure turn out to have practical applications, and in the case of origami, it might save a life," Lang says.

An updated tradition

Art historians aren't sure when origami started, but traditional designs such as cranes and boats existed in the 1700s. The craft didn't change much until the middle of the 20th century, when Akira Yoshizawa inspired a renaissance in paper folding.

Yoshizawa, who died in 2005, developed a language of arrows and lines to show people how to fold different designs. Yoshizawa's instructions included no words, so anyone could understand them.

In the 1990s, the craze for origami morphed into what origamists refer to as "The Bug Wars." After figuring out that it was possible to fold paper into the shape of an insect, origamists began to one-up one another. Someone would fold a beetle with six legs, someone else would create one with eight legs and two antennae, and so on. The Bug Wars have "never really ended," says Lang. In the past few years, he has folded a flying katydid and two praying mantises mating.

There are different genres of origami so there are no "rules," per se, but Lang mostly creates single-sheet origami without any cutting, taping or gluing.


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