Frustrated by his paper glider's repeated nose dives, Muhammed Hussein crumpled the model and tossed it aside. Little did he dream that this was actually a strategy for success.
After the competition began, "I got the idea of crumpling it up as compactly as possible," he said. So compactly, in fact, that it was merely a paper ball ("more of a sphere," he said jokingly). That paper ball won the prize for distance in--of all things--the Classic category of the MIT Libraries Paper Airplane contest on Thursday, Sept. 19.
Classic planes were those made from a single 8.5 x 11 sheet of copy paper. Planes in the Freestyle category could be made from any size and type of paper with other materials. Both categories had a distance and duration component. The planes entered in the Aesthetic category didn't even have to fly; they just sat on a table looking good.
About 20 people, including several ambitious grade-school children, entered airplanes, with another 20 or so onlookers providing the expected oohs and aahs in the Humanities Library that afternoon.
Hussein, a sophomore in electrical engineering, took home two prizes. His second plane, this one folded into a more classic design with a penny inside, won the Freestyle distance award, flying 11 smoots, 1 foot and 5 inches. (A smoot is a unit of measurement peculiar to MIT: one smoot is five feet, seven inches.)
Tying that distance with an unofficial third attempt was Robyn Allen, a freshman from Mill Valley, Calif., who was allowed the additional throw "for the sake of science," said Ann Wolpert, director of the MIT Libraries and one of three judges.
Allen made use of her physics lessons in her third launch; she took a long step, thrust her arm out in front of her and didn't let go of the plane until the last instant. "If you extend your arm and use your finger to push it at the very last moment, you can apply the force for longer," she explained.
Frances Singer, who gives her age as 10 and three-quarters, made her first throw from the mezzanine without much success. As she prepared to make her second throw, from the stacks this time, her 8-year-old brother Patrick said from the audience, "Gentle. Gentle works." She parried, "I thought gentle didn't work." Her brother assured her, "Gentle works."
As her paper glider landed about eight smoots from the start line, Patrick noticed it had flown over the yellow Post-It note marking another plane's landing spot. "Well, you've beaten somebody," he said.
Patrick and Frances were there with their mother, Lois Rollings. Their father Michael Singer is a visiting scholar in mathematics from Edinburgh, Scotland.
Measurements were made by judge Erik Demaine, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, who wielded the official measuring tape. Smoots had been measured and marked before the competition in red tape on the floor. Demaine used the tape to measure additional feet and inches.
Merritt Roe Smith, the Cutten Professor of the History of Technology, was the official timekeeper and the third judge.
Winning in the Classic duration category was Andrew Hogue, a graduate student in computer science, whose flight lasted 5.28 seconds. John Jovan, a retired MIT Libraries employee, took that category for Freestyle with a 4.67-second flight. (The Guinness Book of World Records' longest flight time is 27.6 seconds.)
Chris Pentacoff, a sophomore in aeronautics and astronautics, won the Aesthetics prize with a very small, tightly folded fighter plane about four inches long with two wings, two tails, two horizontal stabilizers and an air intake on either side. "I've known how to make this plane for years," he said. "I found it in a book and memorized it. People are always amazed by it." Styled after the Hornet F18, it's made with a single piece of paper, "no cuts, nothing else," said Pentacoff.
The contest was part of "Ideas Take Flight," the second annual Libraries' Week at MIT. This year's theme commemorated the centennial of the Wright Brothers' first flight with displays highlighting the flight-related collections of each library.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 24, 2003.