Origami meets math, science, and engineering

MSRI Director David Eisenbud, Erik Demaine, AMS Government Relations Director Karen Saxe, and AMS President-elect Jill Pipher.

This is the enticing title of the most recent Congressional briefing, sponsored jointly by the AMS and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

On May 22, Professor Erik Demaine of MIT (a MacArthur Fellow “genius”) wowed the audience with surprising – and a surprisingly wide range of – applications of computational origami in manufacturing, robotics, public safety, space technology, and medicine.

Ingestible robot, developed by the research team of Demaine’s MIT colleague Daniela Rus. See: news.mit.edu/2016/ingestible-origami-robot-0512

We saw life-saving car airbags that are folded based on origami. We saw very large telescopes that fold to fit on space stations and then expand for use once in space. We saw deployable origami bulletproof shields that police and other keepers of our public safety can use, for example, during mass shooting situations. We saw a tiny origami robot that unfolds itself from a swallowed capsule and has the potential to transform internal medicine.

The briefing took place in the Russell Senate Office Building in a room secured for us by Senator Charles Schumer’s staff; we appreciate very much their support. We were fortunate to have a strong show of AMS leadership in the room – President Ken Ribet travelled from California, President-elect Jill Pipher from Rhode Island, and Vice President Ken Ono from Georgia.

I kicked off the event welcoming everyone.  MSRI Director David Eisenbud followed with a few words about both the two sponsoring groups and the goal for our briefings. He then introduced Representative Jerry McNerney who spoke about the importance of federal funding for research.

Erik Demaine and Congressman (and mathematician) Jerry McNerney.

McNerney is a Ph.D. mathematician (the only one in the current Congress), strong supporter of Congressional funding for fundamental research in mathematics and science, and vocal advocate for evidence-based policy-making. He is also an AMS member! We are extremely grateful for his presence at this briefing. AMS President Ken Ribet then introduced Erik Demaine.

Professor Demaine forcefully articulated two key messages:

  • mathematics touches a truly wide variety of other scientific and engineering fields, and
  • it is not always straightforward to predict what types of fundamental research will ultimately lead to innovations that improve our national security and save lives.

It is, therefore, critical that the federal government fund research that may – at times – seem abstract and potentially even silly. Investing in computational origami and much of theoretical mathematics may seem, by nature, somewhat risky but the examples in our briefings show what can happen with sustained funding from federal agencies. Investment in basic research is critical for reasons of economic and national security, and global competitiveness. Much of the research in mathematics is carried out by faculty members working in academia; our research universities have been the envy of the world and must remain so.

The talk was timely in the sense that Congress is currently in the midst of appropriations conversations for FY2019 funding. On May 17, the House Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2019 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill on a vote of 32-19. The bill includes $8.175 billion for the National Science Foundation for FY2019. After years of funding levels that have not kept pace with inflation, this proposed increase of over 5% is a welcome and much-needed step forward to effectively supporting an agency that is vital to our economy, national security, and global competitiveness. The Senate has not yet released its NSF funding proposal. The President has proposed $7.5 billion (a 4% decrease) but Congress usually does not follow the administration’s suggestions. The AMS, as part of a large coalition of science societies and universities, is asking for $8.45 billion. I will write soon about how these deliberations unfold.

Curved Crease Sculpture, Erik & Martin Demaine, Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2012.

MacArthur Fellow Erik Demaine has been instrumental in the development of the field of computational origami. He is also an acclaimed artist. His works have been shown at major museums, and his pieces are in the permanent collections of Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian Renwick Gallery and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

This briefing was just one a series of such. Other recent briefings include one by David Donoho (Stanford) on compressed sensing and MRI technology, and by Shafi Goldwasser (Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California, Berkeley) on cryptography.

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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