Birmingham mathematicians use origami to help bring mathematics to a wider audience

Artist Coco Sato and Birmingham mathematicians engage with members of public at Malvern Festival

This summer, academics from the University of Birmingham School of Mathematics have collaborated with Japanese artist Coco Sato to encourage public audiences to engage with mathematics.

On Saturday 26 June 2021, applied mathematics research fellow Dr Azarmidokht Gholamipour-Shirazi and colleagues hosted a stall at Malvern Science in the Park, in Great Malvern.

Members of the public were invited to fold an origami butterfly in one of four colours of paper that represent their feelings about mathematics - "Useful", "Boring", "Scary", and "Beautiful". The butterflies represent the "Transformation" aspect of the project. The final piece shows them swarming together - an example of "emergent dynamics" observed in shoals of fish or murmurations of starlings that can arise from simple rules in complex combinations.

Additionally, Birmingham mathematicians introduced members more the public with a broad introduction to their  research more broadly, showing them how ideas from "action" origami could be used to create clever microscopic machines out of shape change polymers.

Artist Coco Sato (centre) with University of Birmingham mathematicians at the Malvern Festival

On Friday 16 July 2021, Coco exhibited her ‘Tanabata Story of Two Stars’ installation at Westminster Abbey. The installation consisted of large scale geometric paper structures that can change shape so as to significantly change its size, mainly by folding (contracting) and unfolding (expanding).

Artist Coco Sato standing next to origami in Westminster AbbeyTanabata Story of Two Stars represents a zen garden in the sky where the two stars meet. Developed in collaboration with Dr Tom Montenegro-Johnson, Reader in Applied Mathematics at Birmingham, the work is helping create smart, deployable microstructures for microscale engineering tasks. Dr Montenegro-Johnson worked closely with Ms Sato to develop a folding pattern for octagonal structures, to reflect the shape of the room they would be exhibited. Dr Montenegro-Johnson’s folding pattern also meant the structures could be transported to the exhibition completely flat.

Dr Gholamipour-Shirazi is a Research Fellow in Microscale Soft Active Matter in the School of Mathematics. She is interested in multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary projects.

Dr Tom Montenegro-Johnson is an interdisciplinary mathematician working at the intersection of continuum mechanics, biology, microfluidics, and engineering. The main focus of his research is in the study microscale systems comprising smart, responsive, materials and flow-driving components as a way of controlling fluid flows at the microscopic scale, with applications in microfluidics and microbots.

Close-up of origamiBoth academics were supported by funding from Dr Montenegro-Johnson’s Leverhulme Trust Research Leadership Award, "Shape Transforming Active Microfluidics". The University’s Public Engagement team has also played an important role in supporting the collaboration between academics and Coco Sato.

Coco Sato is an award-winning Japanese artist based in the UK. Her work uses origami to change the way people see the world. Born in Tokyo and graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Art from Central Saint Martins in London, her work is inspired by everyday life in her native Japan and her sincere desire to dissolve boundaries and foster understanding between different cultures. Press the links below to follow Coco on social media:

@CocoSatoArt on Instagram
@CocoSatoArt on Twitter

Photography: Simon Pepper Photography