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Prodigy prof skipped school until he started college at 12

Erik Demaine, an assistant professor of EECS, shows off some of his origami and other creations.
Erik Demaine, an assistant professor of EECS, shows off some of his origami and other creations.
Photo / Donna Coveney

The following is an edited version of an article published in the Jan. 18 issue of New Scientist (vol. 177, issue 2378, page 40--reprinted with permission). The interview was conducted by Steve Nadis, a former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT. The original interview is available online.

When he was 12, Erik Demaine talked himself into Dalhousie University in his home town of Halifax, Nova Scotia, despite having no grades or academic record to speak of. Eight years and a Ph.D. later, he became MIT's youngest professor in the fall of 2001. He specializes in computational origami--the geometry of paper folding.

Q. You left school at the age of seven and spent the next five years on the road with your father. Why?

A. Mainly because it seemed like a fun thing to do. My dad, Martin, was a craftsman, which made it easy for him to travel and sell his stuff at craft fairs throughout the U.S. It was a very free-form existence. Our movements weren't guided by anything more specific than "that seems like an interesting place to go."

Q. What happened to your formal education during those years of wandering?

A. My dad taught me from home-school manuals we got from an agency. When I was nine, it became more efficient for me to teach myself from the same materials. That approach worked well for everything but spelling, which is hard to test yourself on. But we figured out a system for that, too.

Q. Were you ever curious about what went on inside the classroom?

A. I checked out normal schools from time to time to make sure I wasn't missing anything. My longest stint was a month in a Miami school because I was intrigued by a cute girl. But I left once I realised she had no interest in me. The main thing I learned was how much time is wasted in school. When you take away lunch, recess and other breaks, the nine-to-three day reduces to about one hour of real instruction. Home schooling is much more efficient.

Q. When did you become interested in mathematics?

A. It started from playing video games when I was quite young. I asked my dad how people wrote those games, and he said you first have to learn how to write a computer program. He got hold of some books on programming so he could teach me, and soon I was reading the books on my own. After a year or so of that, he said, "If you want to be good at computers, you have to be good at mathematics." So I said, "OK, let's learn some mathematics." I started with a high school algebra text, and things took off from there.

Q. Do you feel any sort of age gap at MIT, being far younger than both your faculty colleagues and many of your students?

A. That's becoming less of an issue now that I can go to bars legally, but age has never really been important in my life. Some people who accomplished a lot when they were young have stressed their age as a way of making their achievements stand out even more. I try to downplay the age thing because eventually everyone gets older.

Q. What's your father up to these days?

A. He's a visiting scientist at MIT with an office in this lab. When MIT offered me a position, they offered him a position too, which was great. Sometimes we work together; other times we work separately. He has tried to keep up in mathematics, learning this stuff as I've been learning it, but as I've got deeper into the field our roles have changed somewhat.

Q. What was your first real accomplishment in mathematics?

A. Six years ago, when I began my Ph.D. work in computational geometry at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, my dad remembered "the paper cut problem" from an article written in the 1960s on paper folding and mathematics. The idea is to take a piece of paper, fold it any way and as many times as you want, and then make one straight cut and see what shapes you get. The question is, are all shapes possible? I worked on this problem for two years at Dalhousie with my dad and adviser Anna Lubiw. After experimenting for a while, we realised you could make all kinds of shapes, such as butterflies, swans, hearts or stars.

Q. What are you doing when you're not working on folding problems?

A. I have a separate project that involves a new approach to organizing data. My hope is to make web searches quicker and more efficient. Last week, a mathematician from Spain visited me and we looked at the classic problem in facility location: where, for instance, would you site 100 fast-food outlets to make them closest to the most people? I also work in combinatorial game theory, studying the complexity of computer games such as Tetris, which in fact is what got me into mathematics in the first place. My goal is to keep moving into new areas of mathematics and not be confined to a single branch.

Q. Does it seem weird to you to have a tenured job and so much stability in your life, given your nomadic past?

A. I guess I'm getting used to it. Stability seems like a good thing to me, and I can't see any downside. If you don't want it, you can always throw it away.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on February 26, 2003.

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