photo of an origami paper folded hermit crab

What does origami have to do with physics?

19 February 2019
Ex-NASA physicist Robert Lang brings extreme origami to Sydney

Robert Lang is a pioneer of the newest kind of origami - using maths and engineering principles to fold mind-blowingly intricate designs that are beautiful and, sometimes, very useful. 

photo of an origami paper folded tetrahedron

Origami tetrahedron by Robert J. Lang


Dr Robert J. Lang, a retired NASA laser physicist, has been an avid student of origami for over 50 years and is now recognised as one of the world's leading masters of the art. His work combines aspects of the Western school of mathematical origami design with the Eastern emphasis on line and form to create models that are elegant and challenging to fold.

He is in Sydney to give a public talk at The Poladian Project, a festival to honour the brilliant University of Sydney maths researcher and teacher Associate Professor Leon Poladian, who died last year of a brain tumour.

“We’re exceptionally lucky to welcome Robert Lang to Sydney – he’s recognised as one of the world’s leading masters of origami,” said Dr Alice Motion, of the School of Chemistry, and one of the organisers of The Poladian Project. “Lang’s designs are beautiful. Detailed, realistic and extremely complex, his artwork relies on mathematical laws and celebrates the beauty of mathematics.”

In his talk, Dr Lang will describe how origami changed in the 20th century from a simple craft to an art form of mind-blowing complexity and realism. Much of this development came from the discovery of the mathematics of origami, which, though developed for art’s sake, has led to some surprising practical applications.

The algorithms and theorems of origami design have shed light on long-standing mathematical questions and have solved practical engineering problems. Dr Lang will discuss examples of how origami has enabled safer airbags, Brobdingnagian space telescopes, and more.


The maths and magic of origami

TED talk by Dr Robert Lang

The Poladian Project

Photo of Associate Professor Leon Poladian

Associate Professor Leon Poladian.

The Poladian Project is a festival of interdisciplinary research and surprising connections, in honour of Associate Professor Leon Poladian. The inaugural festival is free, accessible, and open to the public.

"Leon was a brilliant researcher and teacher, who died last year of a brain tumour,” said Associate Professor Maryanne Large in the School of Physics. “When he died, it felt very bleak for his colleagues, students and friends. So we wanted to do something positive to acknowledge him.”

“Initially we thought about a more conventional symposium, based on his own research. But Leon was never conventional and that really didn’t capture him,” she added. “Instead, we decided to do something about the future – to inspire others with his playfulness, genre-busting curiosity and his ability to make intellectual connections in the most unlikely places. We also wanted to celebrate his love of teaching – which I think was his favourite thing of all. We wanted an event he would be really pissed off to miss. I think we’ve done it.”

Workshops at The Poladian Project include learning principles of astrophysics through dance, the mathematics of origami, and the science of food.

Dr Benjamin Fulcher, lecturer in Brain Dynamics and Neurophysics, said Leon Poladian was an inspiration as his first research supervisor.

“His spirit was one of research creativity and integrity, and his passion for teaching was infectious,” he said. “He was truly driven by curiosity and passion, and this is the spirit of living (and doing science) that we’re trying to promote in this event. All these workshops and talks are happening purely because we think that he'd think that they're cool.”

Elissa Blake

Media Adviser (Humanities & Science)

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