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February 14, 2009

To Fold a Bunny Rabbit

An origami bunny. Credit: Tomohiro TachiOrigami is known to most as the art of fancy napkin-folding and turning paper into cranes. But for scientists, origami is a mathematical tool, useful for everything from medical implants and architecture to molecular modeling. The panelists from today's session on "The Mathematics of Origami" sat down for a lunch with me to take stock of their field.

The discussion was led by MIT mathematician Erik Demaine, who helped prove mathematically in the 1990s that a piece of paper can be folded into any shape. Before that, it was thought impossible to, say, create a grasshopper with all its legs and antennae. "Now the big question is not whether something can be folded," he says, "but can it be folded nicely?" For example, minimizing the number of creases becomes important when trying to fold a rigid material such as metal.

So what about that bunny rabbit?

To help origami designers explore the vast space of possible solutions, Demaine has been working with Tomohiro Tachi on a computer program called the origamizer. Want a bunny? Just give it the 3-dimensional shape, and it will give you a folding pattern that will get you there.

And bunny rabbits are just the beginning. For example, participant Robert Lang has helped biomedical engineers design a foldable device used in heart surgery. In its folded state, it is small enough to enter the chest cavity through a tiny tube, instead of the usual split-open rib cage. "Origami is also very useful for understanding how biological structures work," added Thomas Hull, "like how proteins fold up from strings of amino acids and how the membranes of blood cells crumple." Of course, all of this was demonstrated with the napkins on the table, proving that some origami applications will never die.

--John Bohannon