Origami Is Pushing Science to Unthinkable Limits

Origami, an ancient Japanese technique on the art of folding paper, has found its way to the world of science, supporting the implementation of new technologies that will save the world one day.

Isabel Cara

Origami Is Pushing Science to Unthinkable Limits

The art of origami has been considered sacred in Japan since ancient times, and it is known that this labor of folding paper in complex patterns has existed, at least, since the 17th century, but this tradition might go back much further. Today, the art of folding is no longer limited to paper and is actually pushing science to unthinkable limits.

The Art of Origami

In its earliest origins, the patterns used to be simpler because the paper was very expensive, and was only used for ceremonial purposes. An example of this is the male and female paper butterflies, Ocho and Mecho, which are used to decorate sake bottles at Shinto weddings. But as paper became more affordable, origami patterns spread to more everyday uses until they found their way into the educational area to teach geometry to children.

In the 20th century, Akira Yoshizawa helped tilt origami toward fine art and raised the popularity of folding. Through his representative animal creatures and with a complex procedure, Yoshizawa made this art more accessible to everyone and was even responsible for establishing the language of easily understandable dotted lines, dashes, and arrows for making figures of origami.

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[Photo: Alexandr Park]

Science Made of Origami

Like all art that is inspired by nature, origami also draws its inspiration from patterns that resonate throughout the cosmos. Natural forms of folds surround us in all directions, from the delicate wings of ladybugs that fold masterfully, to the treetops that are full of folds that coexist with each other.

Scientists have spent years trying to unravel the intricate patterns behind origami that can be found in nature, and now they are trying to apply it to more complicated technologies; unsurprisingly, it involves math.

Today, origami is present in scientific areas, even at a microscopic level; an amazing fact. The most visible examples of origami in science are present in space launches, in which space engineers and astrophysicists fold spacecraft’s solar cells so that once they reach space, they unfold their carefully designed wings to take up as little space as possible during takeoff.

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[Photo: NASA]

TThe astrophysicist Koryo Miura used the sacred technique of origami to create a folded sheet with a series of mountains and valleys, which he called the Miura-orim pattern. This one is capable of collapsing or opening with a single flip and was created in 1970. It did not sit in a complicated pattern without use but was first applied in 1995 to bend the solar cells of the Japan Space Flyers Unit.

The science of origami has not been limited to large spatial designs but has also been applied to the microscopic world, as hard to believe as it sounds. Kaori Kuribayashi-Shigetomi, from Hokkaido University, is a medical specialist who introduced origami to her field of study, for example. She applied the art of folding to small cell sheets to transform them from flat structures to “cellular lego blocks” that could, one day, help in the growth of organs, as she herself explained.

Despite the early proponents of applying origami in science facing questioning from their peers for an alleged lack of professionalism, today, origami is pushing scientific boundaries to technologies that were unthinkable in the past. This is how a sacred tradition that originated in Japan is transforming the world of science.

Story originally published in Spanish in Ecoosfera