I’m on the road a lot these days (catch me in Philadelphia next month), which gives me the opportunity to consume media products I don’t seem to have time (or appetite) for at home.
Last week at the University of Oregon I watched “The Today Show” each morning as I dressed. The entire time I watched, each and every day, was taken up with prurient chatter about the living and dead body of Anna Nicole Smith, who was mainly famous for having a body. The worm-biting-its-tail aspect of the whole thing is how much airtime was expended chiding viewers for viewing! My head almost imploded one morning at the spectacle of Matt Lauer solemnly interviewing some media expert on why the media was obsessed with this sordid tale. I was disappointed the media expert didn’t whip out a mirror and turn the question back on one of the chief obsessors.
My most delightful media moment came courtesy of The New Yorker via “The Origami Lab,” a wonderful piece by Susan Orlean on Robert J. Lang, a physicist and origami genius. To see some of Lang’s unbelievably gorgeous and intricate folded paper creations, visit his Web site.
You will enjoy this for the pure aesthetic delight of having your brain stretched by new possibilities of beauty. But there’s more: my brain has been sucking on it for days, extracting every last drop from this delicious bon-bon of metaphor. You see, as Orlean explains, Japanese devotees have been folding paper into intricate shapes for hundreds of years:
For the first two hundred of those years, designs were limited to a few basic shapes: boxes, boats, hats, cranes. Folding a thousand cranes—all of white paper, which was the only kind then used—was thought to bring good luck. The principle was simple. The sheet of paper was the essence: no matter what shape it became, there was never more paper and never less; it remained the same sheet.
It seems that Westerners discovered this art independently. There were 19th century German books on the art and a 1922 volume by the magician Harry Houdini. In the forties, an American folklorist organized the first origami museum exhibit, featuring the work of a Japanese prodigy who, like himself, fit the word “quirky” to a tee.
But with the invention of laser cutters (which can be dialed down to make perfect creases of incredible intricacy in a single sheet of paper), the (yes, quirky) genius Lang and others like him took paper folding to a whole ‘nother level, making him a hero of MIT and other intellectual precincts, chiefly for origami’s practical applications (for example, folding a heart implant so it can be surgically inserted through a narrow tube without damaging its functionality).
This story is a reminder that even the simplest things, even the things we believe are entirely known, yield new possibilities when seen and explored more deeply. Consider the human meaning of these facts: that for hundreds of years, paper folding seemed to have reached its limits, and then one day, someone (several someones) looked at it with new eyes and those limits receded as fast as a starship in deep space.
As I talk with people about the fundamental-seeming social dilemmas we face—bringing about racial and religious equality, preventing wars of conquest, preventing famine, healing climate change, and so on—this tale of suddenly expanding human knowledge and capability lifts my spirits. What limits have we internalized that will evaporate under our steady gaze? What possibilities are right in front of our eyes, if only we open them? What new thoughts are trapped in the folds of our habituated thinking, waiting to be released?