You are here

Achieving Efficiency via Recreational Mathematics

July 6, 2007

Martin Demaine, a visiting scientist in MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, seeks the joys and challenges of games for a serious purpose. The insights he gleans from games, puzzles, origami, geometry, and other facets of recreational mathematics contribute to efficient ways of making things.

Consider the fold-and-cut problem. Is it possible to fold a piece of paper, then make a single straight cut through the folded wad to create a polygonal hole of any given shape? Demaine and his collaborators proved that it is always possible to do so and came up with algorithms for accomplishing the task. Such folding algorithms have led to improvements in, for example, air bag design.

In another challenge, Demaine sought to find the smallest square sheet of foil needed to wrap a spherical piece of candy. The configuration that he and his collaborators discovered was important: It would minimize waste.

"It's serious research," Demaine told the Boston Globe. But there was also "a lot of humor" in the paper that he coauthored on the candy-wrapping discovery, he admitted. Demaine, 65, often works with his son Erik, 26, who is a professor at MIT and recently received a MacArthur Fellowship.

Demaine has also investigated folding nanostructures — a sort of DNA origami. "Protein-folding is like a puzzle," Demaine said. "If we understand how the folding occurs, we could design proteins that make some diseases go away."

Ultimately, Demaine's research isn't about applications or even coming up with up more efficient ways to build things. Games and puzzles "are good exercises for students and researchers," he argued. "It's OK to do research for fun. And I think, overall, it's going to improve ways of thinking and working."

In the meantime, there's always his expressive, intricate glasswork, something that Demaine can pursue as artist-in-residence in MIT's electrical engineering and computer science department.

Source: Boston Globe, June 24, 2007

Start Date: 
Friday, July 6, 2007