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Origami finds new dimensions at MIT

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By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / February 14, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — “We’re trying to get people to understand it’s not about paper boats and cranes.’’

So said Yanping Chen, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology sophomore, as he expertly folded and refolded a 6-inch square piece of paper. Six minutes later, he set down in front of him — what’s this? — a paper crane. Only it did not resemble any crane a grade-schooler might make from a beginner’s origami primer.

Chen’s had five tiny heads and looked ready to fly away at any moment. But then he’s no origami novice, either. Chen arrived at MIT with a sophisticated knowledge of origami design, quickly connecting with like-minded enthusiasts through OrigaMIT, a club for serious paper folders who know how to push the envelope, not just turn one into a paper yacht.

An influx of talented young folders like Chen has solidified the university’s reputation as a hotbed of “extreme’’ origami, a branch of the ancient art form that draws upon high-level mathematical and engineering skills to create mind-blowing works of art. With a mailing list of 200 members drawn from every segment of the MIT community, the club holds weekly meetings and workshops and sponsors campus-wide competitions that challenge MIT’s best and brightest to fold their way to glory.

The burgeoning interest in origami is hardly confined to the MIT campus. Websites like Origami Tube, where scores of how-to folding videos can be found, and Origami Database, which posts model diagrams, viewing galleries, and information on books and other materials, have contributed to the surge. “Between the Folds,’’ an award-winning 2008 documentary focused on origami’s most visionary practitioners, has likewise added to its newfound cachet.

One reason extreme origami has been flourishing at MIT, though, is its mathematical underpinnings — specifically geometry, the branch concerned with shapes, angles, and how they fit together — and structural engineering, which applies to how paper can be manipulated, so that the right-sized flaps are in the right places before folding.

Last fall, club members used all those skills and more in constructing a 17-foot-long paper triceratops they exhibited in the MIT student center. Another competition kicks off this month, culminating in a show of origami, extreme or otherwise, that goes on public display in March.

“We haven’t seen a huge boom, but it’s definitely growing,’’ said Jason Ku, OrigaMIT president, as he sat beside Chen, finishing a paper dragon Ku had chosen as a demonstration model. He’d also brought along several pieces made or collected by club members, including an intricately detailed bicycle, a red bull sporting menacing horns, a scarab beetle, a winged gargoyle, and a pleated blowfish that inflated and deflated under Ku’s lung power.

While some MIT students still regard origami as more craft than art, Ku said, “It’s a little more involved than that.’’ He should know. A doctoral candidate working in nanofabrication, Ku began folding at the age of 5 and taught classes at Japan’s Academic Origami Society when he was barely out of high school.

Origami, derived from the Japanese terms for folding (ori) and paper (kami), is a folk art with roots in the 17th century. In its purest form, no cutting or gluing is allowed. However, hours of planning and folding are often required to produce models like the ones on display at MIT. It’s not unheard of for designers to spend months working out the positioning and sequence of folds, known as crease patterns, followed by dozens more hours making their designs take shape, one fold at a time.

Over the past three decades, origami has been taken to new levels of complexity by a handful of acknowledged masters and their nimble-fingered disciples. Among those featured in “Between the Folds’’ are Tom Hull, a mathematics professor now teaching at Western New England College in Springfield; California physicist Robert Lang, the author of several books on origami design and theory; and Erik Demaine, an MIT computer science professor and a former MacArthur Foundation “genius’’ grant winner. Demaine’s MIT courses include topics like “Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra’’ and “The Mathematics of Toys and Games.’’

MIT graduate Brian Chan, another “Folds’’ profilee, arrived on campus in 2002, when club membership was small and meetings infrequent. That has changed dramatically, said Chan, with designers like Ku and theorists like Demaine having brought a measure of rocket science to an art form many still regard as child’s play.

“Origami is great because you don’t have a deadline,’’ said Chan, who earned his doctorate in fluid dynamics from MIT in 2009. “It’s leisure, but with a goal.’’

Among Chan’s creations is a model of the university logo, titled “Mens et Manus,’’ folded from a 3-feet-square sheet of mulberry-bark paper. It depicts a scholar and blacksmith flanking a pile of books. Chan has made several versions of the model, his latest taking 25 to 30 hours to fold, he said.

Chan and others trace origami’s newfound popularity at MIT to 2004, when Demaine invited Lang to give a talk on advanced origami design. “That opened a new door,’’ Chan recalled.

The public is welcome at OrigaMIT events, which are listed on its website (origamit.scripts.mit.edu). The club collects no membership dues, its operation funded by private donations and through the MIT Student Activities Office. Children as young as 8 are encouraged to come, Ku noted, “with the caveat that we’re not a day-care center.’’

Last fall, Ku and Lang colaunched an online publication, The Fold, found on the OrigamiUSA website. Based in New York City, OrigamiUSA claims 1,650 members and is growing rapidly, according to administrator Sam Riviello. Ironically, given the material involved, the organization is striving to go paperless, posting materials online rather than disseminating them in printed form. “We’ve been trying to bring the organization into the modern world,’’ Riviello said, in part by appealing to a younger demographic.

Sitting at the same table as Ku and Chen, MIT sophomore Michelle Fung gave her own demonstration of high-level origami, folding an original design of hers: a buck-toothed beaver that pays homage to the MIT mascot. In high school, Fung said, she’d grown bored with basic origami. But when she met club members and saw what they were capable of, her interest got rekindled. Big time.

“The idea that I can make my own origami, as opposed to folding what everyone else does, is really exciting,’’ said Fung. Most of the highly skilled MIT folders are guys, she added with a smile, “but we’re trying to change that.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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