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Scientists Toy with Origami As A Solution

Fold the paper in half and then fold it in half again and eventually that piece of paper will be transformed into an airplane, a hat, or a peace crane. Origami-the ancient Japanese tradition of paper folding-has long been recognized as an art, but now origami is providing the answers to real world problems in mathematics, engineering, and astronomy, proving that origami is more than just child's play.

"Origami helps in the study of mathematics and science in many ways," says Martin Kruskal, a mathematician at Rutgers University, "Using origami anyone can become a scientific experimenter with no fuss." Kruskal found that origami is simpler to develop than most scientific theories and a lot easier to apply.

With his experience tackling a variety of puzzles that range from designing a folding telescope, called Eyeglass, that is easily deployed in space to the careful folding of an air bag to protect passengers, Robert J. Lang, an engineering consultant, explains the basic geometric concepts used to solve a broad class of origami folding challenges. Lang teaches scientists how to apply origami to their work. "One basic technique is how to pack circles that don't overlap into a square, also known as 'circle-packing,' " says Lang. As result of his research, Lang has propelled the art of origami into tools used for applied mathematics and engineering.

Expanding the realm of origami applications, Jeremy Shafer, an origamist with the Bay Area Rapid Folders, shows scientists how to design their own origami models as an exercise in problem solving. "It's all about coming up with a good folding challenge," says Shafer, "After that, it's about experimenting with different base shapes, devising a strategy, coming up with a working model, and then evolving it toward perfection."

Eric Demaine, assistant professor in electrical engineering and computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology is fascinated by the mathematical and computer science problems that develop naturally in origami. For example, what shapes can be made if a square piece of paper is folded flat, and then cut? "Our team has proved that with one straight cut, a butterfly, swan or just about any other shape can be made," say Demaine, revealing that one carefully calculated cut, can open up a multitude of possibilities.

"For many years, I have thought that science and the arts really are just opposite sides of the same coin," says Patricia Wang-Iverson, senior associate for Research for Better Schools and organizer of the session, "People only seem to see the tedium and hard work of science, but don't see the creativity and beauty as they do in a great work of art." Maybe the answers to solving real-world problems of mathematics and science may have been tucked away in the hidden in the folds of origami all along.

Inside Science News Service

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