Tag Archives: film

The Art and Math of the Fold

12 May

Last night I realized how long it’s been since I last folded a paper crane. The  documentary, Between the Folds, allows origami to explode into this beautiful world of artistic creations and amazing patterns and complexity driven by algorithms– sequences of mathematical instructions– ranging from simple to astronomically complex.

The funny thing is that on its surface, origami is simple– folding a piece of paper, no cutting and no glue. But there’s a beautiful tension throughout the nearly hour-long film between complexity– making a piece of paper as realistic and as complicated as possible– and simplicity, refining the art to be simple, cleaner and also more abstract.

In the trailer, one artist talks about the art of the origami process, the ballet of creating. The film shows him in a pas de deux with paper, with the beautiful score of Gil Talmi in the background. Vanessa Gould has created a beautiful, stunning film.

Beyond the beauty of the art itself, the scientific connections are wonderful. Teachers in Israel are using origami to inspire kids to learn math. In the film, mathematician Tom Hull shows how origami describes advanced mathematical concepts. MIT professor Erik Demaine and his sculptor father Marty (who collaborate), are perhaps the ultimate symbol of this blending of the artistic with the scientific (Erik also talked after the screening at CUNY Science & the Arts in Manhattan). In the Demaine family it appears that art and science are simply a matter of viewing the same coin from the opposite side. They create origami that then lets them test unusual math. It sounds like a wonderful symbiotic relationship.

The beauty of origami also has a practical package. Car airbags rely on the algorithms to fold efficiently into flat spaces. And origami has all sorts of biological implications. Proteins– the workhorses of living cells– are long strings that fold in specific shapes in order to work properly. Genetic material folds into complex shapes to fit inside the nucleus– the command center– of a cell. (I interviewed Paul Rothemund who designs DNA origami a few years ago. The magazine killed the story, but I still find the work fascinating).

And just for fun– Jeannine Mosely gave a lesson in origami: folding 6 cards into a cube (and even learning how to lock cubes with our neighbors). Here’s one I just put together at home with my outdated business cards.

cube made from my old business cards

cube made from my old business cards

Lots of fun. My sister bought me an origami set for Christmas last year. I think it’s time to break it out.

Scientists as Naturally Obsessed

1 Apr

If you’ve done a Ph.D. in science (or particularly if you’re thinking about it) or if you’re just fascinated with the scientific process, I hope you have an opportunity to see the documentary Naturally Obsessed that chronicles the journey of three graduate students toward the scientific prize in protein crystallography. Only one of them, Robert, wins what most would consider to be the coveted apple– a paper in Science and the pursuit of an academic career. Kil takes his Ph.D. and leaves academia behind for what appears to be a successful career as a consultant for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. The third, Gabe, the woman in the group, decides a Ph.D. isn’t what she really wanted and heads back to work as a pharmaceutical researcher. Their adviser, Larry Shapiro at Columbia University, gets tenure.

What I think is so good about the film by former researcher Richard Rifkind and his wife Carole is that it really captures what it’s like to be a developing scientist. And I choose that term deliberately– the process of a Ph.D. is more fundamental than training. It really is developmental.

The film brought me back to my days in the lab (In the end, of course, I’m a female Kil, who took my Ph.D. and jumped off the academic wagon). The three characters reminded me of myself and of the people I worked with. Their struggles reminded me– perhaps a little too clearly, my husband would say– of the highs and lows of the scientific research game. Continue reading