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The Friday Fillip: Know When (And How) to Fold ’Em

Folding is fairly nifty.

For one thing, it lets you increase surface area without increasing volume. Which is why radiators are folded into sections or have multiple fins, allowing heat to escape maximally into the surrounding air via convection off the expanded surfaces and why ostriches fold their wings and legs against their bodies at night to cut down on heat loss. Our lungs pack a lot of oxygen transferring surface — 2,400 kilometres of airways! — into a comparatively modest volume thanks to a kind of folding. And our “little grey cells” find themselves on folds surrounding unfolded white matter — although in this case we don’t entirely understand why the increase in surface is desirable.

At the even more basic, cellular level folding is at the core of life. Twenty or so amino acids might lie in simple, long, and inert strings, were it not for the strings’ innate tendency to fold themselves into myriad shapes that are the proteins supporting life. Here, whatever else is gained in the volume-to-surface ratio, the aim seems to be to use folding to bring certain portions of the string close to each other while distancing certain different portions from each other at the same time. Potential combinations and disjunctions achieved this way are very numerous if not astronomically large.

Then there’s origami and that sort of folding. In the case of origami the surface area can’t be increased — a square of paper has fixed dimensions that can’t be altered by folding, of course — but it can be given structure, moved from two into three dimensions, as it were. Paper becomes a crane, a table napkin morphs into a swan-of-sorts. This structuring has more than delight to it. Things are sometimes easier to manage — to store, to ship, to distribute — as flat objects — just ask Ikea.

But however convenient the 2- to 3-D transition might be, moving from flat to functional isn’t always easy — just ask an Ikea customer, or someone learning origami. So what engineers at Harvard have accomplished might be quite useful. They’ve invented a robot that starts out as a more or less flat piece of material and that can fold itself into a machine with volume and function — moving, in this case. The video showing this in action is below. (Ingvar Kamprad are you paying attention? You’ve certainly got enough money to explore the application of this development to Billy bookcases and the rest of the Swedish cast.)

Nifty, no?

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