Physics Professor Uses Origami to Illustrate Concepts


With only a simple sheet of paper and a set of special folding patterns, an ancient art form and modern science collide to shape the focus of one man’s career.

In his first year at JMU, physics professor Marcelo Dias has already employed origami, the art of folding, and kirigami, the art of cutting, in both class and his personal research projects.  

Dias first became interested in this integration of science and art while getting his Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. 

“I’m a physicist, but my interest really lies in this interphase of mechanical engineering, physics, architecture and art,” Dias said.

His primary research focus concerns the use of origami by folding materials to change their surface area. By changing the overall shape of the structure, there are distinctive features produced, including a pattern unique to a particular fold. 

Dias then examines how he might implement the origami in a practical setting to solve a variety of problems. He recalls one memorable instance in which this folding technique came to the forefront of science. A scientist named Koryo Miura developed the folding pattern Miura-ori to enable the deployment of large structures to outer space in a compact volume.

“This is another point of my research,” Dias said. “I try to draw inspiration from other places in which those ideas have already been used.”

In addition to earlier experiments, Dias draws heavily upon nature as a starting point. He explains that a leaf is contained inside a bud before it blooms, similar to the spacecraft example, in which larger membranes are contained inside a smaller area.

With a strong foundation for his inspiration, Dias’ biggest challenge isn’t only how to employ these techniques in his research, but also how he might use them for a practical purpose.

“Of course the ultimate goal of my research is to try to find something useful, like the scientists have found,” Dias said. “But the way to do this sometimes is just to observe what’s out there.”

One such form that has many applicable uses is kirigami. 

With this method, Dias is intrigued by how he can use certain structures to find engineering applications, such as designing a solar panel that tracks and follows the sun as it moves across the sky. 

But Dias’ central application of interest evolves from the dimpled features of a golf ball that allow for better aerodynamics. He’s currently working with freshman physics major Nicole Voce to implement this strategy on a much larger scale — with airplane wings.

Dias initially piqued Voce’s interest during her freshman physics seminar class with his ability to make links between real world examples and more challenging, physics-based material.

“It’s interesting to see how he connects everyday objects and implements them in a complicated system,” Voce said. “Like, he studies nature and the collapsing of buds in plants when they open, and he’s connecting that to what we’re doing with buckling.”

Dias’ colleague, Klebert Feitosa, a fellow physics professor, is also impressed with his implementation of these ideas.

“It’s quite an innovative way of thinking about a possibility like this … that could improve the aerodynamics of things,” Feitosa said. “It’s quite attractive.”

Working together, Dias and Voce plan to take various properties of a golf ball and examine similar features with airplane wings. They hope to implement a device on a wing that can alter the dimpled pattern of the overall structure, thus enhancing its aerodynamic properties in midair.

Although the aerodynamic research is still in its early stages, Voce eagerly anticipates the work ahead of them. 

“I like working in groups, but this gives me a lot more experience, because it’s just me and him solving the problems,” Voce said. “And I can work through it and he can guide me or we can go back and forth with ideas. So it’s nice to have that one-on-one time.”

Feitosa also hopes to collaborate with Dias on his aerodynamic project by adding his input from a fluid dynamics standpoint.

“There is a good chance that as he works on this project, aerodynamic response, we may be able to design an experiment of the air tunnel that we have here in order to test some of those ideas and see how that works,” Feitosa said.

Currently, Dias is largely engaged with origami and kirigami within the context of his research. Although he shows various simulations and visual representations in his classes with paper models and digital constructions, he hopes to incorporate these art forms and extend their scope as a larger component of his class material.

“It’s very easy to explain an idea when you have something to show, so I think this is an advantage,” Dias said.

With several projects and collaborations well underway in just one semester, Dias expects a rewarding, engaging future with physics at JMU.

“Hopefully in the future, I will be able to teach more specific classes and classes that are also in a way in collaboration with other departments,” Dias said. “Because in a way, some of this stuff is very broad across different disciplines, so this is something that I intend to do in the future.”

Contact Nicolette Chuss at

Published: Friday, February 3, 2017

Last Updated: Friday, June 9, 2017

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