A cacophony of barking alerts me to the cardboard box delivered to my front door. Packed inside is a single sheet of white corrugated plastic folded into what looks like a large suitcase. My canine companions take a curious sniff as I unfurl the rigid form, which spans nearly the width of my living room. Pushing outward on the creases of one side, I hear a shockingly loud pop.
The dogs sprint for cover, scrambling across wood floors, while I frantically look for damage, heart pounding. But nothing’s broken. Instead, the plastic suitcase has transformed, and suddenly a full-size kayak is sitting in my living room.
The boat, created by the company Oru Kayak, is part of a scientific and technological revolution inspired by the centuries-old art of origami. What began as efforts to understand the math behind fold patterns has opened up surprising possibilities for manipulating the shape, movement, and properties of all kinds of materials—filters of face masks, the plastic of kayaks, even living cells.
“I just can’t keep up,” says Robert J. Lang, a preeminent origami artist who previously worked as a laser physicist. “That’s a wonderful place for the field to be.”
The art of origami has existed in Japan since at least the 17th century, but there are hints of paper folding from long before. Initially, models were simple and—because paper was expensive—used largely for ceremonial purposes, such as the male and female paper butterflies known as Ocho and Mecho that festoon sake bottles at Shinto weddings. As paper prices fell, origami’s uses spread to gift wrap, playthings, and even geometry lessons for kids.
Then, in the mid-20th century, origami master Akira Yoshizawa helped elevate paper folding to a fine art. He breathed life and personality into each creature he designed, from a stern-faced gorilla glowering out of sunken eyes to a baby elephant joyfully swinging its trunk. With the publication of his first origami book in 1954, Yoshizawa also made the art form more accessible, establishing an easily understandable language of dotted lines, dashes, and arrows that contributed to systems still used today.
In the late 1950s, Yoshizawa’s delicate forms inspired Tomoko Fuse, now one of the foremost origami artists in Japan. Her father gave her Yoshizawa’s second origami book when she was recovering from diphtheria as a child. Fuse methodically crafted every model, and she’s been entranced with origami ever since. “It’s like magic,” she says. “Just one flat paper becomes something wonderful.”
Among her many achievements, Fuse is famous for her advances in modular origami, which uses interlocking units to create models with greater flexibility and potential complexity. But she thinks of her work as less about creation than about discovering something that’s already there, “like a treasure hunter,” she says. She describes her process as if she’s watching from afar, following wherever the paper leads her. “Suddenly, beautiful patterns come out.”
Indeed, origami taps into patterns that echo throughout the universe, seen in natural forms such as leaves emerging from a bud or insects tucking their wings. For these exquisite folds to become scientifically useful, however, researchers must not only discover the patterns but also understand how they work. And that requires math.
Putting numbers to origami’s intriguing patterns has long driven the work of Thomas Hull, a mathematician at Western New England University in Springfield, Massachusetts. When I walk into his school’s math department, I know immediately which office is his. The door at the end of the hall is ajar, revealing boldly colored paper folded in all manner of geometric shapes. The models fill every nook of the small room—hanging from the ceiling, adorning the bookshelves, and surrounding the desktop computer. Hull himself is a riot of color and pattern; black and white spirals dance across his shoes, which are tied with purple laces. He’s long been fascinated by patterns and still remembers unfolding a paper crane at age 10 and marveling at the ordered creases in the flat sheet.
There are rules at play that allow this to work, he recalls thinking. Hull and others have spent decades working to understand the mathematics governing the world of origami.
As we chat, Hull pulls out an array of models that are folded in intriguing shapes or move in unexpected ways. One is an impossible-looking sheet folded with ridges of concentric squares, which cause the paper to twist in an elegant swoop known as a hyperbolic paraboloid. Another is a sheet folded in a series of mountains and valleys called the Miura-ori pattern, which collapses or opens with a single tug. Dreamed up by astrophysicist Koryo Miura in the 1970s, the pattern was used to compact the solar panels of Japan’s Space Flyer Unit, which launched in 1995.
In the years since, origami has been applied to many different types of materials, including tiny sheets of cells. This unusual medium coats the self-folding structure created by Kaori Kuribayashi-Shigetomi at Hokkaido University. When probed, the cells contract, transforming flat structures into cellular “Lego blocks,” as she says, that could one day aid in growing organs.
Despite origami’s current popularity in science and technology, researchers’ early folding forays met resistance. Hull still remembers a discussion he had in 1997 with a program officer from the National Science Foundation (NSF), a U.S. government agency that supports research and education. Hull was outlining a potential project, when the program officer cut him off to say that the NSF would never fund “a research proposal with origami in the title.”
This skepticism wasn’t limited to the United States. Tomohiro Tachi, a prominent origami engineer at the University of Tokyo, looks down with a smile when I ask if he’s ever faced resistance to his work. People in Japan, he says, often view origami as child’s play. But that perception has shifted over the past couple of decades, with the NSF spearheading much of the change.
During a temporary posting at the organization starting in 2009, Glaucio Paulino pushed to fund research involving origami. “The process was brutal,” says Paulino, who is now a professor of engineering at Princeton. “We were always in the hot seat trying to defend the idea.”
But the effort paid off. In 2011 the NSF issued the first of two calls for proposals mixing origami and science, and teams of researchers flocked to submit ideas. The move lent legitimacy to the burgeoning field—and the use of origami in science blossomed.
“There was this resonance,” Lang says. “It was something whose time had come.”
Origami is now pushing the limits of what scientists think is possible, particularly at the tiniest of scales. On a blazing hot summer day, I meet up with Marc Miskin, an electrical engineer at the University of Pennsylvania. Inside the airy lobby of UPenn’s Singh Center for Nanotechnology, we peer through a bright-orange glass wall into a series of rooms where people dressed head to toe in Tyvek sit at microscopes or work under vent hoods. It feels like a world away from the colorful chaos of Hull’s office, but origami may prove no less vital here.
Miskin and his students have been using the clean room to craft an army of robots no bigger than a speck of dust. Such tiny bots require big creativity. Gears and most other mechanisms with moving parts work best in the human-size world where momentum and inertia rule, Miskin explains. But that’s not the case at tiny scales where forces like friction are enormous, causing everything to stick. Gears won’t turn. Wheels don’t spin. Belts don’t run.
That’s where origami comes in. Fold patterns will bend and move the same way at any size, at least theoretically. Created using the same techniques as the computer chip industry, Miskin’s robots look like fat flakes with arms and legs. When exposed to a trigger, such as voltage, their limbs bend, helping them walk through a drop on a glass slide or wave at a passing amoeba.
Miskin sees a world of possible ways these tiny bots could be used, from manufacturing to medicine. For now, though, pushing the limits is what’s most important to him. “If you go after hard problems,” he says, “you’ll be rewarded with interesting technology.”
Origami holds particular promise for biomedicine. For instance, a team led by Daniela Rus, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, developed a robot that can fold to fit into a pill capsule. After the capsule is ingested, the bot unfolds and can be directed around the digestive system using programmable magnetic fields. An initial test demonstrated one possible use: removing swallowed button batteries from the stomach, a potentially deadly condition experienced by thousands of children each year. “Imagine embedding medicine or using it to patch a wound,” Rus says. “Just imagine a future of surgeries with no incisions, no pain, and no risk of infection.”
These types of big dreams are where origami seems to help science flourish most. The venerable art form has provided a new tool kit to ignite the imagination and create technologies once thought impossible, including a kayak that folds down small enough to fit in a car’s trunk.
On a bright fall afternoon I take my kayak for a spin on Virginia’s Lake Accotink. The plastic suitcase draws curious looks from passersby as I unfold it. Perhaps one day folding forms will be seen as prosaic. But for now, origami will continue to spark wonder and excitement as it propels science, medicine, and technology into the future—and keeps me afloat as I shove off from the lakeshore.
This story appears in the February 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.