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The Science of Origami

Praying mantises, scorpions, horseflies and long-horned beetles are among the creatures that can be viewed in Robert Lang’s Alamo, California laboratory.  His lab, although based on the foundations of physics and mathematics, is better referred to as an art studio. The specimens are actually origami pieces, each uniquely designed and folded by Lang.

Lang, who has authored or co-authored 9 books on origami and has exhibited his masterpieces in galleries around the world, including the Louvre, will be at UC Davis this Wednesday, July 13th. He will be giving a talk at MathFest, an event sponsored by the COSMOS (The California Summer School for Mathematics and Science). The event, which is free to the

public, is directed towards high school students and younger children and will take place in the ARC Ballroom at 1pm.

The sole requirement to creating an origami piece is folding one single sheet of paper, without cutting or tearing it. Lang became interested in the art of folding at the age of 6, when he was given

a book on origami. After completing all of the projects in the book, he began to create his own. In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, he described his first encounter with origami. “This seemed like such a wonderful thing, that you could take some paper, something free, and make really neat toys out of it. There’s essentially an endless supply of raw material,” he said.

Lang has created over 500 origami masterpieces, which range from a tiny, detailed and textured tick to a large, life-size cuckoo clock. Worldwide, people marvel at his skill and creativity. Of course, to Lang, origami is not only an art, but also a complex science. The art can be broken down into 7 different creases, created by aligning points and lines of the piece of paper. These creases, known as Huzita axioms, can be combined in many different ways. Although there are only 7, the axioms can be used to solve quadratic equations and construct cube roots when constructed in various combinations.

The concepts and art of folding paper have been applied to numerous fields of science and technology. Over the years, Lang has worked as a laser physicist as well as a researcher at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has been consulted for the design of airbags, as well as expandable space telescopes. In addition to vehicle safety and space science, medicine, architecture and robotics are among the fields that have benefited from origami.

Lang has also developed a computer program to design complex origami designs. “You wouldn’t think that origami could be reduced to equations, but some parts of it can,” he explained, “But the artistic aspect will never be captured in equations.”

The art of origami began at least 400 years ago in Japan, where folding paper cranes was thought to bring good luck. Since then, thanks to scientists such as Lang, origami has long evolved both artistically and scientifically. This Wednesday, meet Robert Lang and show your kids how science and art can collide to create an unusual and unique masterpiece.

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