Before becoming a physicist, before being the editor in chief of the Journal of Quantum Electronics, before helping NASA design its largest space telescope, Robert Lang learned to fold paper.

Already a numbers whiz at age six, Lang had trouble sitting still during math class. His teacher gave him an origami book to keep him occupied and Lang started to fold. He never stopped. He folded his way through high school and his undergraduate years at Caltech, decorating his shelves with a parade of tiny paper ants. He kept folding throughout his graduate work in applied physics, when in 1987, he made an actual-size cuckoo clock after a trip to Germany’s Black Forest.

Eventually in 2001, Lang quit his science day jobs and committed to origami full time. The ancient art still requires artists to fashion their creations out of a single, square piece of paper, without tearing or gluing pieces together. But now, artists use mathematics to map out their incredibly detailed and lifelike paper creations. Lang has built musicians strumming guitars, a hummingbird drinking from a flower, a fish with 400 scales, and a female praying mantis devouring her mate.

Lang’s work has been showcased in museums across the country, but his facility with folding doesn’t only yield beautiful sculptures. He’s helped design stents that collapse, so they’re easier to thread through arteries, and created computer programs that use origami to model how an airbag should be packed away in the dashboard. And he worked with NASA to create a telescope that folds up during launch and then unfurls once in space.

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