Robert J. Lang: Know How To Fold ‘Em
Former NASA physicist Robert Lang finds a natural fit for his mathematical mind in the ancient art of origami.
Robert J. Lang is a celebrated origami artist and former NASA physicist. Known for his complex paper designs, he has pioneered the use of the mathematics of origami to solve engineering problems.
Born in 1961 in Dayton, OH, Lang grew up in Atlanta, GA, and studied electrical engineering and applied physics at California Institute of Technology. He holds 46 patents in the fields of lasers and optics from his time at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and other engineering firms.
Lang was introduced to origami at age 6 and pursued the art while a student and physicist. He published his first book on the art in 1980. His work Origami Design Secrets (2003) is a standard in the field. In the 1990s, he developed the Tree Maker computer program for paper design. He quit engineering in 2001 to focus on origami, and has since consulted with several companies to develop real-world applications for his mathematical theories of origami, including car airbags and space technology.
The celebrated origami artist and former NASA physicist Robert J. Lang can fold forms of great beauty, but also great purpose. For years, companies have been commissioning him to apply his folding expertise to their real-world problems, like virtually testing airbags, but today Lang is on the brink of a breakthrough that could transform healing forever.
Robert J. Lang: I have one client right now and I can’t say what it is, but it has to do with cancer, and it’ll play a significant role in the life saving treatments.
AJC: When will you be able to tell us about it?
Lang: I hope within a year. I think my client probably hopes within a year, but—
AJC: And this is something, and I’m not going to pester you, but it’s something that’s directly related to the art of origami.
Robert Lang folded his first shape more than 50 years ago, and he says he’s still completely enamored with his chosen medium.
Lang: Paper has one very unique property that almost no other sheet-like material has, which is if I make a fold one way and then unfold it, the paper remembers that and naturally folds easily the other direction in exactly the same place.
AJC: Interesting. Then that paper has a memory.
Lang: You can do things with paper that you can’t do with any other material.
Not that Lang hasn’t made other materials work for him. As a physicist at NASA’s jet propulsion lab, his work in lights and lasers generated 46 patents, and though on the surface optics and origami might seem worlds apart, a calculated approach has served Lang well in both fields, confirming his belief that beauty can be measured objectively.
Lang: Math is at its heart the study of patterns and relationships, and because we as human beings respond, often favorably, to patterns, we see repeating patterns and we say that’s beautiful. If it’s a mix of repetition and some randomness, but in the right balance and that’s an aesthetic judgment we say that’s beautiful and we can describe those patterns using math.
One of Lang’s early innovations was to impose mathematical discipline on origami. His technique circle/river packing was detailed in his book Origami Design Secrets, now a standard tome for all aspiring origami artists. On his first trip to Japan in 1992, Lang was introduced to another calculated folder, Toshiyuki Meguro. As it turned out, both men had developed similar theories concurrently, without ever knowing of each other’s efforts.
Lang: And we were both kind of surprised. Someone else had come up with the same idea of using circles to represent flaps and turning it into mathematical packing problems.
Lang: But the beauty of mathematics is it is universal and I’m a mathematical Platonist, meaning I think there is a mathematical reality out there that anyone can discover.
And Lang has made sharing his own discoveries something of a personal mission. TreeMaker is his popular computer program that generates origami crease patterns, which can then be printed and folded.
Lang: Some people don’t need or want those particular tools. They use other tools, they use their intuition, and that’s great, but there are a lot of people who want to design complex figures because that’s the aesthetic excitement, and the only way they’re going to be able to do that is to use these mathematical tools, and so by presenting these tools they can now achieve their artistic vision.
AJC: It was generous of you.
Lang: I didn’t even think about it in terms of generosity. It was more like I want everyone to be able to do what I’ve been able to do by using those tools. I first got into it, I wanted to fold things at a level of precision and detail that I’d never been able to, and I’d never seen anyone else be able to, and once I started achieving that, each act of creation you get this little thrill of adrenaline from, and I wanted other people to be able to get that same thrill of adrenaline.
AJC: What happens when you go? I mean, is there somebody in this neighborhood who can come in here and take over what you’re doing?
Lang: Oh, there have been over the last 30 years, a generation of young folders who are doing amazing things. Things that I wish I could do, and I console myself when they say well, I’m using a X move, and I go that was one of mine. So that’s my satisfaction. In origami we give away our secrets. The things I come up with, I try very hard to get out there and what I’ve seen is not just that people have adopted the techniques I developed, but they’ve built on them, they’ve advanced them, they’ve developed new techniques that are legitimately their own brilliant innovations. The world’s and origami’s going to keep going.