Giant Origami Fractal

A three-dimensional, modular origami fractal has taken form for the first time in the history of the world—and perhaps the universe—at the USC Libraries in Los Angeles.

Led by the libraries' Discovery Fellow Margaret Wertheim, USC students, faculty, staff, students from nearby middle schools, and other volunteers built the level-three Mosely Snowflake Fractal out of 49,000 folded business cards. The fractal takes its name from engineer and mathematical origami artist Jeannine Mosely, who designed the construction process. The snowflake is a relative of the famous Menger Sponge, which Mosely also built from business cards in 2006.

To break the construction process into repeatable modules that origami novices could build, Mosely created a software model to visualize the object, assess its structural integrity, and calculate the required thickness and number of business cards. USC community volunteers then assembled thousands of basic cubes, each made out of six cards. Others linked the cubes together to form more complex modules, which in turn connect and create even more complex structures.

The final object measures roughly six cubic feet, weighs more than 120 pounds, and resembles—at some angles—a giant snowflake. It took seven months to complete, from February through August 2012.

The snowflake is the culminating project of the inaugural USC Libraries Discovery Fellowship. USC Libraries' dean Catherine Quinlan established the fellowship to highlight libraries as places where art, science, math, and library collections converge to encourage discovery and creative works.

Discovery Fellow Wertheim describes the fractal as an object that "resides at the boundary of mathematics, engineering, and physical making. Like a fantastic book, it opens your eyes to linkages to disciplines that are often kept far apart." Wertheim also co-directs Los Angeles' Institute for Figuring.

The USC Libraries unveiled the fractal at a public reception and exhibition opening in September on the USC University Park campus. You can also make your own level-one Mosely Snowflake.

Nathan Masters and Hugh McHarg of the USC Libraries.