Engineering with Kirigami

Mike Tanis is the artist-in-residence in the lab of Randall Kamien, a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy who studies the geometry of crystals and how they can self-assemble into larger, useful structures. Tanis’ media of choice are origami and kirigami: a way of folding and cutting paper into complex, three-dimensional objects. Tanis and Kamien use these techniques to investigate fundamental rules of topology, and work with Penn engineers to take these objects from theory to practice.

At Penn Today, Michele Berger spoke to Tanis and Kamien about how this artistic partnership advances scientific questions:

“Having an artist-in-residence is totally mind-blowing,” says Kamien, the Vicki and William Abrams Professor in the Natural Sciences. “It’s like when I play chess. I know all the rules, and in principle, I could figure out what you’re going to do, but I’m not very good at chess. Then there are the chess geniuses who can see deep into the game. Mike is like that. Mike takes the rules — the same rules that everybody knows for kirigami, just like everybody knows the rules for chess — and he then turns them into something so much bigger, so much more intricate than what we could possibly have imagined.”

Kamien is also the deputy director of AESOP, the Center for Analyzing Evolved Structures as Optimized Products. Along with Center Director Shu Yang, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Kamien’s work in AESOP involves convening materials scientists, chemical and biomolecular engineers, mechanical engineers, robotics engineers, systems engineers, and computer scientists to investigate how biological structures use these geometric principles to achieve useful properties, and how artificial analogs can be engineered a larger scales.

Learn more about Tanis’ work at Penn Today.