Scientists take art into fold


Origami: The Japanese craft of paper bending helps solve design problems in spacecraft and offers clues in microbiology. In return, computer users embrace and expand the art.

March 03, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

A few years ago physicists Rod Hyde and Sham Dixit set out to design a space telescope big enough to study planets outside our solar system. But the duo, who work at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, quickly hit a major snag: How would they get their mammoth instrument into space?

To see planets so far away, the scientists figured the telescope would require a lens at least 160 feet in diameter. Trouble is, NASA's biggest moving van can hold objects only about a tenth that size.

They solved the problem by turning to an unlikely source of inspiration: the art of origami.

`Poetic form of mathematics'

Origami -- derived from the Japanese words meaning fold (oru) and paper (kami) -- is seen by some as kid stuff, a fun way to kill time by creasing paper into cranes, boats and other shapes.

But the ancient art is now attracting a small but growing number of scientists who are betting that delicate folds of paper hold the answer to their hardest problems. Molecular biologists, for example, are looking to it for insights on how proteins fold. Engineers, meanwhile, are drawing on origami to help design everything from auto parts to spacecraft.

Last month, origami artists and scientists gathered at an American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Boston to discuss the ways in which this unusual marriage is paying off.

"Lots of things behave like folded or crumpled paper: sheet metal, the membrane of a cellular wall, an insect's wing," said mathematician Tom Hull of Merrimack College in Andover, Mass., a researcher in the emerging field of "origami mathematics."

In some respects it may not be surprising that origami has caught the eye of the scientific set. After all, one look at a folded paper crane and it's obvious that origami is just "a poetic form of mathematics," said V'Ann Cornelius of OrigamiUSA, which represents nearly 2,000 paper folders nationwide.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has an active origami club. The Palo Alto Research Center, birthplace of computer networking and other path-breaking technologies, has sponsored exhibitions of cutting-edge origami.

Solutions and inspirations

The constraints of traditional origami -- no cutting, taping, or multiple sheets of paper -- "make it appealing to problem solvers," said Marshall Bern, the PARC researcher who organized the origami show. But it's only recently that scientists have considered origami as a potential solution to their problems -- or as the source of exciting new ones.

So far outer space is providing the richest source of real-world problems for origami.

In the 1970s, Japanese engineer and origami enthusiast Koryo Miura designed a fold -- known today as the Miura-ori -- that the Japanese space agency used on one of its satellites to tuck closed the craft's solar panels.

It was that design that inspired Hyde and Dixit to see if origami might hold the answer to their telescope troubles. The scientists flipped through origami books to see if any of the creased creatures or other designs could be adapted to their needs. No luck. So by poking around on the Internet and asking around, the physicists eventually stumbled on Robert Lang.

Lang, an engineer and former researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has been folding origami since he was a kid. Today the 40-year-old is considered a modern master of the art and a pioneer in using scientific principles to create more complex designs.

For more than a decade he has been tinkering with his own origami design software, TreeMaker. Based on a mathematical algorithm developed at the University of Maryland, the software allows origami artists to sketch stick figures of the shape they want to fold. The computer then spits out a blueprint of the required creases. (Although that doesn't mean the designs are easy to make, since the computer is unable to specify the order in which the origami must be folded.)

"You reduce the origami problem to a mathematical problem," said Lang, who is working on his seventh origami book. "Then you can apply solutions that mathematicians have already come up with."

Unfurling like a flower

After talking with the Lawrence Livermore physicists, Lang eventually came up with a lens pattern that would require 72 glass panels, each connected by foldable hinges. Gently spinning the lens in space would force the panels closed. When the lens stopped rotating, it would unfurl like a flower.

Plastic models show that the design seems to do the trick. The scientists are constructing a working 5-meter glass version of the telescope, which they hope to finish by year's end.

Lang has worked on other projects. A German engineering firm asked him for help on airbag simulation software. The shape of the folded airbag determines how quickly it inflates and how much pressure it puts on passengers. "You don't want an airbag to break anybody's neck," he says.

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