“Between the Folds”–Origami as Scientific Art

Vanessa Gold, producer of the film, “Between the Folds”  (winner of the 2010 Peabody award), chronicles origami, literally, “folding paper”.  Many American children have attempted this Japanese craft in elementary school, making an origami crane or simple fish.  However, origami is much, much more and has become something of a manic hobby among a number of Silicon Valley engineers.  And, this film explains why–through filming the stories of ten origami artists/scientists, who have developed origami “technology”, in engineering, industrial design, and the biological sciences. All are unconventional and provocative thinkers. As they converge on the art of origami, these artists and scientists reinterpret the world in paper. What unfolds is much more than creating a three-dimensional form from a two-dimensional sheet of paper without scissors, tape or glue.

With each artist’s unalloyed zest and devotion to his or her craft, the heroism of the art reveals itself. At first, this viewer was awestruck by the examples of modern origami–sculptural art which, in some cases, has been lacquered or bronzed: dazzling versions of birds, dragons, and almost porcelain, Hummel-like figures of musicians and court nobles. Each unique design must be individually folded: there is no mass-production process.  The  intricacy of the diagrams–templates for the folding– is an Escher-like pattern of tessellations.  Yet each artist (or should I say, performer?) expresses himself or herself through sometimes spontaneous interpretation and variation of folds.

The intersections between origami, mathematics, and science are manifested as the paper transforms into something else.  Visually, in a magical sleight-of-hand, we see how mathematics illustrates the underlying geometry of origami and conversely, as one elementary school teacher brilliantly explains, how origami illustrates mathematics.  At the highest level of mathematical abstraction, computational origami harnesses algorithms and theory to solving origami “problems”.  Mathematics in the form of paper poetry is the end result.

As if this were not mind-blowing enough,  “Between the Folds” then sketches the application of origami to medical and pharmaceutical science.  Erik Demaine, ( http://erikdemaine.org/) a MacArthur “Genius” at MIT,  and his father have pioneered computational origami  models for  the way materials can be folded. Erich has developed principles used to design car airbags and DNA protein folding.  Who would have guessed airbags and DNA  were in any way related to origami?!

I promise you–if you see “Between the Folds”, you will never look at a piece of paper, especially origami, the same way ever again!