Since childhood Dr. Robert Lang has practiced origami. It was the convergence of his intensely creative mind and this ancient Japanese tradition that gave rise to his unique style of origami, which he developed into a renewed art and ultimately a science of practical application.
His intricate paper insect creations were a departure from the standard boats and cranes that have long been the tradition of origami. Over time his works grew more complex, featuring hundreds of folds and multiple pieces of paper, such as a full-scale cuckoo clock. Between his efforts to earn a PhD in applied physics, his job at NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory, his eighty technical papers, and his forty-six patents in optoelectronics and lasers, he somehow found time to implement and evolve a number of original origami designs.
The practicality of his scientific research began to influence his origami designs, until the line between the two began to blur. He participated in a project at EASi Engineering to develop complicated crease patterns for airbag folding designs. Lang also worked to design a mesh wire heart support to be folded and implanted in congestive heart failure patients; once inside, it would expand, protecting the heart. His most ambitious project to date, however, is shared with a team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, with whom he has developed a space telescope – one that is forty times larger than the Hubble and collapsible for space travel through a series of precise origami folds.
Though origami has been practiced in Japan for over four hundred years, some consider the master to be the late Akira Yoshizawa, born 1911. At 26 Yoshizawa left his job to pursue the art of origami. Living at the edge of poverty he sold soup door-to-door while practicing his designs. He finally achieved recognition at 43 when he was commissioned to create a series of origami zodiac figures for the magazine Asahi Graph. From that point his influence extended to the west and eventually Europe where he was invited to display his work at the Louvre in 1998. It was masters like Yoshizawa who elevated the obscure hobby of origami to a respected art form and complex pursuit, which in time would capture the imagination and analytical mind of people like Dr. Robert Lang.
Approaching the challenge of seeing further into space begins with the task of constructing a larger lens, thereby allowing more light to be gathered and sharper images to be produced. Constructing a large scale orbital telescope was the goal of the Diffractive Optics Group at the Livermore Laboratory. The Hubble, a reflective telescope, utilizes a curved mirror to see objects; whereas the new telescope would be designed using the principals of a transmissive telescope, which uses two separate lenses. For this endeavor a special diffractive lens would be used. This type of lens relies on microscopic, concentric circular grooves etched on the surface, which essentially create a hologram of a lens.
However, this was only the beginning: the project called for the lens to be 100 meters in diameter. Though space vehicles vary in design they all have similar limited payload space, 4 meters in diameter and
100 10 meters long. The lens would have to somehow fit in this narrow compartment shaft to be launched into space. This is where Dr. Robert Lang entered the picture. The Diffractive Optics Group contacted Dr. Lang and requested a visit. After examining the problem, Lang explored various origami designs that could be applied to the lens. It became evident that through a limited number of collapsible facets, the size of the lens could be reduced with origami folds while maintaining the integrity of the surface once expanded in space.
Though the design is unique, the concept has been explored in the past. In the 1980s a Japanese space research team needed to engineer an unfolding solar panel as part of a satellite design. They called on scientist Dr. Koryo Mirua to approach the task. Mirua, proficient in origami, once explored methods of folding maps so that they may be unfolded with one simple pull of a corner. This method, the Mirua-ori origami pattern, became the basis for various solar arrays. Later in 2005, Harvard scientist Dr. Lakshminarayanan Mahadevan published findings that nature exhibits this same pattern in the folding of a leaf and its internal framework. In fact, this pattern can also be found in wings and flower petals, which begin as folded structures.
Dr. Lang and the telescope team eventually agreed upon an umbrella-like folding structure which would allow it to fit in a rocket’s cargo hold. The expanded lens would have to be perfectly symmetrical to allow spin-stabilization to occur properly when it is positioned in orbit 25,000 miles away from Earth. The full size lens will consist of 72 separate pieces of glass, each piece only 7 millimeters thick. The multifaceted design also provides durability. If a meteoroid shatters one or even several pieces of the glass, the lens will still be capable of producing images. The two lenses will not be connected physically; rather they’ll orbit the Earth thousands of meters apart, using precision thrusters to maintain their relative positions and alignment. The “eyepiece” lens will double as a communication module, storing the images and transmitting them home. This revolution in design will allow scientists to gaze ten times further into space.
Though a promising concept, many other technical issues would have to be addressed in the development phase. One such issue would be achieving a smooth surface when unfolded. Many of these hurdles would have to be worked out during the design of a prototype, a process that continues to this day.
Dr. Lang has also harnessed the power of computer technology to explore the future of origami. His TreeMaker software can translate crude stick-figure images into original origami patterns, and his ReferenceFinder program translates these computer-generated patterns into human-readable instructions.
Now a full time origami artist, Dr. Lang often creates figures freely without the burden of unanswered scientific questions or looming deadlines. The simplicity and elegance of the craft still has enormous draw despite the technology afforded by his programs and special laser paper cutters. Often he sells his creations, the most popular is a free standing nine inch tall bull moose. Other animal creations can be found in his books such as The Complete Book of Origami.
His acumen for paper folding has not only attracted the attention of scientists, but also artists. He has worked with various production companies to produce animated origami sequences for products like the Toyota Avalon. A more ambitious project involved creating a world entirely out of origami figures for a Mitsubishi Endeavor TV spot. A recent McDonald’s commercial features Dr. Lang’s talents in the form of numerous origami figures crafted from cheeseburger wrappers.
Perhaps the latticework of creases makes the art form its own best metaphor, illustrating its ability to shape, join, and intersect so many areas of inquiry. In spite of its age, the ancient multi-faceted discipline continues to offer useful insights within the realms of art, science and humanity.