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Once a physicist: Robert Lang

Robert Lang is an origami artist and author of several books on origami techniques.

Robert Lang
Credit: CC BY-SA Robert Lang

 What sparked your interest in physics? 

In my freshman year at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), I took an introductory course in digital electronics. It started with the most basic definition of how a gate works, then moved on to how you can take two transistors and make an inverter or a gate, all the way up to a computer. I found that mind-blowing, so I declared my undergraduate major as electrical engineering. Then, in the following year, I took a lab course on lasers and optics, and I found it was really fun and enjoyable to manipulate light. At that time, electrical engineering and applied physics were in the same division at Caltech, so for the rest of my undergraduate career I took both electrical engineering and applied physics courses. Then, when I came back to Caltech to get my PhD, the professor I was interested in working with, Amnon Yariv, was in applied physics, so I switched and worked on diode lasers both for my PhD research and then for my technical career after that.

 How did you get into origami?

When I was about six, I encountered a book of crafts and activities, among which were instructions for four traditional origami designs. I worked through the instructions and folded those four things over and over. Then I tried playing with them – could I change them a little bit? – and my folks saw that I was interested. A few years later, they got me an origami book as a birthday gift, and that really set me going because now there were lots of different things I could fold. Eventually, I exhausted all the books I could find, so I started developing my own designs.

What made you decide to leave your “day job” in laser science and focus on origami?

By the end of the 1990s I was pretty well known and successful in the origami world, and I’d written several “recipe”-type books that explained how to fold different designs. But I really wanted to write a book about how to design origami, and I eventually came to the conclusion that I couldn’t just work on it on at weekends as I had done with the recipe books – I needed to be able to hold the entire picture in my mind while I was writing it. I decided that whatever I might accomplish in the world of lasers and optics, there’s lots of physicists who could do the same thing, but what I could accomplish with this origami book was unique. So I quit my laser job and followed up on some other opportunities, like setting up a website and giving lectures about origami, science and maths.

Do you have a favourite design?

My favourite design is almost always my most recent one, but there’s one that I finished in 2015 that I’m pretty happy with. It’s a cactus in a pot, folded from a single uncut square that’s green on one side and red on the other. It has spines, too, which was pretty hard.

What skills are necessary to become good at origami?

You need good 3D visualization skills to be able to picture the connection between a pattern on a flat sheet and where all the parts of that flat sheet go in 3D. But nowadays, you’re competing as an artist as well as a technician, which is something that has actually changed a little bit over the past couple of decades. Initially, one could be successful in origami if one had the technical abilities to design a complex shape, and very few people had that because design was sort of mysterious. But the generation that developed design techniques made those techniques available to a much larger pool of people, including some who may have had a great artistic sense but who previously didn’t know how to execute it.

Have you ever used origami techniques for scientific purposes?

Just after the turn of the millennium, I got involved with a company called EASi Engineering that created simulation software for airbags. They were seeking an algorithm that, given an airbag, would let you figure out how to flatten it, and it turned out that this algorithm could draw upon the ones that origami artists had developed for designing shapes that have lots of flaps. Later, I worked on a space telescope project with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The concept was a telescope where the lens is 100?m across, the eyepiece is a couple of kilometres away and there’s no actual tube because you’re in space. I helped them develop a couple of different patterns for folding the lens up, one of which was used in their first-generation prototype, and another that sat in the files until a few years ago when NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory got in touch.

What did they want?

They were interested in origami mechanisms for a project associated with the James Webb Space Telescope. The idea is that if you point the telescope at a star, and you want to block out the starlight and look for exoplanets orbiting it, you use a disc that flies in space some distance from the telescope and interposes itself between the telescope and the star. But because you’re looking very close to the star, you need to reduce the light from the star by something like seven orders of magnitude, so you can’t actually use a round disc because you get diffraction. It turns out there are patterns that look like sunflowers – a central disc with petals – where if the shape of the petal is incredibly precisely controlled, it knocks all the diffraction orders down by seven orders of magnitude. So they need a way of folding this sunflower (which is huge – tens of metres across) so it can go up in space.

Any advice for today’s students?

My first piece of advice is a comment by Louis Pasteur: “Chance favours the prepared mind.” Learn about a lot of things, follow your curiosity and don’t worry overmuch about whether what you’re learning will be useful. As I look back to my college education in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I can see that a lot of the skills I learned weren’t all that useful: we don’t build circuits with wire-wrap guns anymore, and I will probably never need to program an 8-bit Z80 microprocessor again. But I still use the maths and physics I learned as an undergrad, even in origami. So my other advice would be to take as much maths and physics as you can, no matter what you want to do.