Origami: when math and art meet

11 04 2012

By Marissa Fessenden

When I learned to fold a paper crane out of a piece of paper, I thought I had mastered one of the coolest tricks ever. The crane was the most difficult pattern in my little origami book. But origami is more than paper birds, cups and frogs. It is an art form and a way to gain insights in engineering and math.

Art gallery-goers make origami boxes and cups for jelly beans at the opening of an origami exhibit at UC Santa Cruz. Photo by Marissa Fessenden

Origami is a traditionally Japanese art. Purists follow simple rules: one square of paper, no cuts and no glue. By folding the paper into mountains and valleys in sequence, artists shape designs. Some are incredibly complex.

Traditionally, finding new origami forms relied on trial, error and some luck. But computers have opened up a new way to develop designs. Robert Lang, a physicist and mathematical origami artist, has even created a program that can spit out the pattern of folds necessary to make any shape—a reindeer, a beetle, a scorpion. He likes insects because their many skinny appendages posed a challenge to origami artists of yore.

Least you scoff at the simplicity of Lang’s approach, or accuse him of taking talent away from the art, realize that the pattern still requires a master folder. Lang also tweaks the patterns to make the end result more pleasing and natural looking. Check out his gallery here. This hermit crab is one of my favorites.

(video by Wired)

Math and origami go even beyond the development of new designs. Computational origami is actually a field of mathematics where paper folding can solve problems. For example, a puzzle for geometry is to draw an angle that is exactly one-third of a given, arbitrary angle using only a straightedge and a compass. This exercise is impossible, but becomes possible when you can fold the paper.

Lang is also a master of using origami for real world applications. He helped design the optimal folding of an airbag for cars and consulted for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to develop a telescope lens that would unfold to the size of a football field once it reached space.

When he meets with a client who wants to use origami he asks if cutting is a problem. The restriction to stick to uncut paper is merely artistic. In many cases, cutting provides a better solution for practical application.

Another great example of the uses of origami is a folding, implantable medical device, known as a stent, developed by Zhong You and Kaori Kuribayashi from Oxford. Stents are tubular structures used to hold open a part of the body such as a weakened blood vessel, and restore fluid flow. You and Kuribayashi used origami to make tubular stents that fold to a small diameter while they are delivered to the right location. Once in place, the stents can expand. Traditional stents are made of wire mesh. The origami stents can be made of other, more bio-compatible materials.

I listened to Lang talk at a recent UC Santa Cruz lecture on mathematics and origami. The talk marked the opening of an exhibit honoring the late David Huffmann, a computer scientist and renowned origami artist. If you are in town and would like to visit the exhibit, stop by the Eloise Pickard Smith Gallery at Cowell College. Pieces by David Huffmann, Erik Demaine and his father Martin Demaine, Robert Lang, Brian Chan and Eric Joisel will be displayed through June 16.

And those wishing to master the art of folding paper cranes can learn here.

Hacking for science and creating synesthesia

16 11 2011

By Marissa Fessenden

This past weekend I willingly deprived myself of sleep in order to participate in Science Hack Day in San Francisco.

What is a Hack Day?

Well, a hack is a quick solution to a problem. Not necessarily pretty, but probably clever.

A Hack Day is usually a 48 hour event where people with ideas get together and make something cool! Wikipedia lists a bunch of hack days around the world. It seems to be a fairly new phenomenon. Science Hack Day was first held in London last year. Since then people have gotten excited and made things with science! (exclamation points are very much part of the culture) in Mexico City, Cincinnati and last weekend in San Francisco for the second time. Upcoming events include Nairobi and Cape Town.

The idea behind science hack day is that there is so much data out there, and so many things to be found, that people can do science or use science in innovative ways through hacking.

Last year’s winningest hack was the particle wind chime. Matt Bellis, a physicist and post-doc at Stanford, led the team. He writes:

The idea was to allow users to take properties of the particles that we observe in our detector (energy, distance from the interaction region, type of detector it is interacting with, etc.) and map that onto sonic characteristics (volume, timbre (instrument), pitch, duration, etc.). In this way, the user can explore the data themselves and find mappings which either make sense to him or her, or are simply more aesthetically pleasing.

I admit that I was not expecting to be of much use at a hack day. I have no experience in software development or coding and very little ability to use tools and build stuff. But the website said “If you’re a coder, designer, scientist, hacker or just an enthusiastic person with good ideas, Science Hack Day is for you.” I wasn’t sure that I had good ideas, but I could do enthusiasm.

Emails from Ariel Waldmen, the founder of Science Hack Day SF, repeatedly emphasized that I didn’t even need to have an idea before coming. And that eavesdropping on other people was completely acceptable. So I went.

I wandered around the morning of the first day, introduced myself to people and tried to think about how I could be useful. Everyone was very friendly, very enthusiastic and full of ideas.

After inspirational talks I found a couple of young women who won me over with their NCBI ROFL shirts. We were going to create a walk-in, interactive model of a cell, but didn’t think of a satisfactory way to accomplish that over lunch. Instead we turned to the group behind us and decided to help with their idea: create a synesthesia machine to override our everyday senses.

Synesthesia is a mixing of the senses. Synesthetes might report seeing green when they read the number 4, feeling a strong impression of a particular shape when they eat ice cream  or tasting raspberries every time they listen to the third movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Scientists used to believe that this was just a strong memory or that people were making up the sensations. But recent studies show a neurological basis. This study found additional activity in the brain of synesthetes corresponding to their sensations.

The project was based on an idea by this guy:

Liam in the foreground, Fen inspecting code in the background. Photo by Marissa

I asked our fearless leader to tell me about his idea to create a synesthesia machine. He responded via email:

There’s a strong evolutionary pressure to optimize our perception of the world to emphasize information that makes a difference to our survival. This means that we necessarily under-appreciate a large amount of the information in the world, that is, we ignore much of reality. The goal was to short-circuit the pre-processing systems in our visual cortex by sending visual input into an inappropriate sense, the sense of touch. The hope is that the resultant synesthesia would allow us to appreciate a different slice of reality to the quotidian.

Hacking this idea did take us most of the time. I stayed up until 3:30 a.m. and I loved it.

Lil modeling the placement of speakers.

We used a webcam to capture an image and translate that to a 12 pixel square. Each pixel in the square would register the image as either white or black. That would translate to an “on” or “off” code transmitted to an Arduino –“an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software.” The Arduino was wired to small, cheap speakers sewn on the inside of a full head mask. So the visual input was translated to vibration (and sound) on your face!

Initially, we thought we could design a vest lined with the speakers. I was ready to try and modify a thrift-store purchase into a tight fitting garment. That probably would have been beyond my sewing ability. We decided that a mask would be a more visually striking design.

Lil found a pattern online of a bondage mask. Yes, I know … but we needed something that would keep the speakers in contact with your face. I didn’t find a good pattern for spiderman masks, so bondage mask pattern it was.

Other members of the team worked on coding. I have very little idea what goes into software programming, so I don’t know what they did, but they did it well.

We also needed to wire the Arduino to the speakers, something that required soldering and some electronic-building knowledge. I remember building a tiny robot using a kit when I was younger, so I did get to try my hand at soldering. Though I am not an expert, my skills in that area improved under the tutelage of another member of our group (Parker, who was also my old friend from college).

I think was was most remarkable was the way each of us in the group was instrumental in getting to the finished product.

The final product was…amazingly creepy. We call it Syneseizure. It may possibly be the next superhero or supervillain.

Lil, Parker in mask and Bala. Photo by Marissa

Check out our project’s blog for more photos, a link to the code we used, video of the first public test and video of our presentation at the end of the hack day. Our hack won the People’s Choice award!

The other hacks were incredible. From a globe with a laser inside that tracked the movement of the International Space Station, to a drinkable DNA extraction (with Bacardi 151 and strawberries!), there was some seriously cool things going on.

I had a great time. Thanks so much to the organizers who worked to keep us hacking and fed! They did so much. Here is a time lapse video of the 8 hours of set up at the space. And some more photos of the day.

More reading:

An article from Scientific American about synesthesia.

website about synesthesia for kids, from the University of Washington.

The American Synesthesia Association

There’s fluoride in my water?

18 10 2011

By Marissa Fessenden

Today, 64 percent of Americans will drink and bathe in fluoridated water.

Meanwhile Watsonville, CA is at the end of a decade-long debate and legal battle to keep fluoride out of their drinking water. The California Dental Association offered to pay for installation of fluoridation equipment to protect the community from dental decay. After a court case, the city was ordered to fluoridate the water or start paying a fine for each unfluoridated day. Soon the city will be installing a fluoridation system and adding fluoride to the drinking water. Watsonville has a determined opposition against fluoridating the water. As an intern at Santa Cruz Sentinel, I am researching the science and questions surrounding drinking water fluoridation. I will be a contributing reporter to a longer article on fluoridation in Wastonville in a few weeks.

photo by Marissa Fessenden

Most people against fluoridating water do not believe that it is a communist plot to keep the population docile. And I don’t mean to belittle their concerns. Stanley Kubrick’s movie is the first thing that many people think of when they aren’t aware of the discussion surrounding water fluoridation.

And if you haven’t seen Dr. Strangelove, get thee to a video rental place.

Anti-fluoridation activists cite some of the following concerns: Fluoride is not effective at reducing tooth decay. Fluoride causes health problems  (large doses are poisonous, true, but the evidence on whether it causes cancer is pretty slim). Fluoridating water is too expensive to justify. Fluoridating water is mass compulsory medication. Meanwhile, the CDC has community water fluoridation listed as one of the 10 Great Public Health Achievements in the 20thcentury.

            Fluoridation of drinking water began in 1945 and in 1999 reaches an estimated 144 million persons in the United States. Fluoridation safely and inexpensively benefits both children and adults by effectively preventing tooth decay, regardless of socioeconomic status or access to care. Fluoridation has played an important role in the reductions in tooth decay (40%-70% in children) and of tooth loss in adults (40%-60%).

I don’t mean to pull my punches here. But I don’t want to spend time addressing these points here in this blog post. I will be addressing those concerns in the newspaper article, so stay tuned! For now, I’m interested in why a practice with more than 60 years of government backing and extensive published research papers is still hotly contested by a few people.

In this (now too long) post, I try to understand the challenges people have in wrapping their mind around water fluoridation. Read the rest of this entry »