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Aug. 03, 2009

Between the Folds, Betwixt the Beauty

by Karen A. Frenkel

Click to enlarge images

folds-filmBetween the Folds, a new documentary about origami, the Japanese art of paper folding, is a gorgeous cinematic experience. I was so captivated by the documentary that halfway through I felt intense admiration for humanity, the same tingling I feel when listening to music so exquisite it’s almost painful. Many people portrayed in the film—artists, mathematicians, scientists––have devoted their lives to creating paper art objects for the pure fun of it, to satisfy their curiosity, to communicate. It was glorious to behold their energy and originality.

Director Vanessa Gould says her documentary is about “the magical process of transforming two dimensions into three dimensions.” But she also says it’s scope is far larger. Beyond the potential of an uncut paper square, the film is about “the potential of a wild scientific idea. The potential to see things differently.” Gould shows us that through origami, these folders’ lives have been altered, thus, the film also tells stories of transformation.

We meet folders from all walks of life who speak eloquently of their art. A French artist who created a mermaid, Jack in a box, and a violinist likens each piece to jazz improvisation. A Caltech engineer chucked his career to “manipulate paper” using mathematical and genetic ideas to create realistic-looking insects, birds, and fish.

Akira Yoshizawa (1911 – 2005), the self-taught, Japanese grandmaster of origami is their inspiration. He invented wet-folding, a technique that uses water to dampen paper so that it can be manipulated more easily and pressed into curves. He also originated a diagramming system so that others could reproduce increasingly complex designs. An elk he fashioned in 1985 involved 200 steps, for example. It was but one of 50,000 models Yoshizawa created in his lifetime. He never sold any.

We also meet a folder who makes an analogy between playing Chopin etudes, saying you need to overcome your emotions to get to the next level of folding. An Israeli teacher uses origami to make geometry more visual to her students. They fold and smile, she says, they find happiness. A post-modernist explores what shapes come of merely one fold, finding this creative limit a “freeing lesson.” At the other extreme are the most intricate polyhedrons and sculptures that resemble multi-petaled flowers. Click here to visit some of these participants’ websites.

A father and son team, Eric and Martin Demaine, have pioneered computational origami, using algorithms to model the ways materials can be folded. Eric, who is also a glass blower, is an associate professor of computer science and a member of the artificial intelligence laboratory at MIT. Here is his page. And here are some of the problems he’s interested in solving. the Museum of Modern Art has exhibited the Demaines’ works since 2008. Here are three works in the show.

The principles of computational origami have been applied to the design of car airbags and protein folding. Proper protein folding is necessary because only unfolded surfaces interact with other molecules in the environment. Recently, diseases have been linked to faultily folded proteins. Alzheimer’s results from too much of an incorrectly folded protein and cystic fibrosis and cancer are related to a lack of correctly folded protein. Here’s the link to a Nature backgrounder on this topic. Furthermore, understanding how natural proteins fold could help biologists learn how to create properly folded artificial proteins.

Between the Folds did not go into this level of detail, which might have made it more significant to those with a practical bent. Nevertheless, it is a very intriguing film on many levels, literally with multiple dimensions.

- Karen A. Frenkel
For information about me please visit my website, www.karenafrenkel.com

About Karen A. Frenkel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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