I’ve always been a Valentine’s Day curmudgeon, but here’s an expression of love, art, and math that even I can get behind: the origami club at MIT has folded hearts, roses, and butterflies in honor of the holiday.
It’s often said that origami and math have a lot in common, but I asked the president of the club, Yongquan Lu—a sophomore math major known to his friends as YQ—to explain a little bit more about what that means. After all, paper folding is approachable to people who never took linear algebra.
Lu said that origami is intricately connected with math; creating new forms requires one to think mathematically about creating a multidimensional object from a flat piece of paper. But in this instance, the club was approached by the restaurant, Wagamama, to make origami in honor of the holiday that could appear in their restaurant. Valentine’s Day, Lu said, isn’t a holiday with much room for innovation, and the club decided to fold forms that they thought would help attract people to the art of paper-folding—one that he’s been practicing since he was a kid.
“Valentine-themed origami is a very established field,” Lu said. “Lots of people have designed flowers and roses and hearts and butterflies—and instead of designing something really intricate and complex, we decided where we were going with this is to showcase the kind of thing everyone can make.”
In other words, they decided not to break new ground. Instead, they did an exhaustive search of the origami literature, contacted the people who made the originals, and got their permission to fold the whimsical forms.
That included a heart with wings that was invented by a past-president of the club as well as the Kawasaki rose—a very iconic origami rose invented by Japanese folder Toshikazu Kawasaki.
The similarity to science struck me. In science, people often use tried and trued methods and techniques to learn, and eventually, to build something new. Although the club wasn’t trying to break new ground this time, there’s a rich history of artistic and mathematical invention at MIT. Computer scientist Erik Demaine regularly teaches a class that is about paper folding. It’s called 6.849: Geometric Folding Algorithms: Linkages, Origami, Polyhedra.
“The way math comes into the picture with origami is if you want to design something to be folded a certain way—so, for example, if you want an animal, it must have a head, it must have tail, it must have four legs. These must come from the original sheet of square paper in some way,” Lu said. “There are very specific rules about how the folds can interact. ... It’s not just how do you fold this pretty thing; it is understanding the underlying math behind it.”
One thing Lu also likes about origami is that it takes the best of both art and science, which are both constantly trying to create or discover something new.
“Origami is still constantly reinventing itself. There are still lots of new designs people come up with everyday,” Lu said. There are the traditional topics—flowers, animals. There are probably 20 bears at least in the origami literature, he noted, but the interesting thing is that people are constantly pushing the boundaries by applying techniques to new subjects, or coming up with their own stylized forms and abstract geometric shapes and symmetries.