Saturday, February 17, 2007

Below the fold

This one goes out to all the Grant Morrison fans out there. You want an example of something from The Invisibles happening in real life? Then clock this article from the New Yorker by Susan Orlean about a physicist turned origami expert:

And as origami became more complex it also became more practical. Scientists began applying these folding techniques to anything — medical, electrical, optical, or nanotechnical devices, and even to strands of DNA — that had a fixed size and shape but needed to be packed tightly and in an orderly way. By the end of the Bug Wars, origami had completely changed, and so had Robert Lang. In 2001, he left his job — he was then at the fibre-optics company JDS Uniphase, in San Jose — to fold paper full time.

No mention of using origami for time travel, but give the guy a few years. Since string theory and its cousin brane theory call for as many as 10 or 26 dimensions, most of which are compactified (essentially, folded in on themselves) to such a small level we can't detect them, it's not entirely inconceivable that the mathematics Lang uses for his origami could have some application to describing the shape of spacetime. And if I were the likes of Morrison or Ellis, I'd have turned that idea into a four-issue miniseries already.

Also, it turns out that the history of origami in the West has an odd connection to the history of comic books: social critic and Kinsey Institute researcher Gershon Legman, who joined Fredric Wertham in attacking comic books starting in the late Forties, makes a surprise appearance in the New Yorker article:

In the mid-nineteen-forties, the American folklorist Gershon Legman began studying origami. Legman was a man of diverse inclinations: he collected vulgar limericks, wrote a book about oral techniques in sexual gratification, and is credited with having invented the vibrating dildo when he was only twenty. After becoming interested in origami, he made contact with paper-folders around the world — most significantly, Akira Yoshizawa, a Japanese prodigy who, before being recognized as an extraordinary talent, made a meagre living by selling fish appetizers door-to-door in Tokyo. What made Yoshizawa extraordinary was that he presented the art for the first time as a medium that could be creative and expressive — he devised tens of thousands of models, and was particularly famous for his gorillas. In 1955, Legman organized an exhibition of Yoshizawa’s work at the Stedelijk Museum, in Amsterdam.

Legman and Wertham are interesting people, much more than the stereotypes we remember them as today. Both of them were what we'd call "liberal progressives" who were deeply concerned for the welfare of children...and both had a heartfelt, genuine, and utterly misplaced dread of the evil effects that comic books had on young minds. Both were totally opposed to censorship...except when their fear overtook them, and they lent their support to a crusade to eradicate something they saw as an even greater evil, even if it meant impinging on our civil liberties and freedom of speech. Fortunately we're so much more enlightened than that today.

So, Legman helped crush the comic book industry in ways from which it still hasn't recovered...but he also helped introduce us to origami.


  1. One particularly interesting thing about math is how continually the bits of it that seem useless and recreational turn out to be important.

    Cellular automata started out as a strange little game (one that I made few hundred bucks off of two decades ago in writing a computer game based on it), yet a few years back Stephen Wolfram considered it the key to understanding the universe. Origami strikes me more likely to turn out ultimately useful than I would have thought of that stuff.

    (Yeah, this is unlikely to be a comment that'll get many knowing nods, but I've been quiet 'round these parts lately. Figured I should say something at least.)

  2. Well I nodded my head knowingly, for whatever that may be worth. Heck, I was just pleasantly surprised to get any comment at all on this post!

    Richard Dawkins was also influenced by cellular automata in his book The Blind Watchmaker -- which could have been the model for Oolon Colluphid's best-selling book Well, That About Wraps It Up For God were it not for the fact that Douglas Adams invented the latter some years before the former was written -- so the game of Life definitely contains the key to understanding the evolution of life.

    Now, if anyone writes a book that brings together origami and Kaluza-Klein Theory, you can say you read it here first. Which would be pretty funny considering that when it comes to do with anything involving math or physics, I haven't got the slightest idea what I'm talking about.


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