Martin Demaine, left, and his son, Erik, with one of their paper origami sculptures.
It has worked out well for both of them. Amazingly well.
When Erik started designing puzzles at age 6, they created a company to sell them. After first grade, Martin home-schooled his son, including teaching him a lot about art. Erik started playing with computers and teaching his father, who has gone on to do computer science research.
At age 20, Erik finished his Ph.D. in computer science and became the youngest faculty member in the history of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Then came a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant at age 21 and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship.
Erik, 31, and Martin, 70, both now teach at MIT. Earlier this month, they were awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Their current research into paper folding holds promise for breakthroughs in fields ranging from engineering to pharmaceuticals.
The Demaines will be in Lexington this week to give two free, public lectures about their research and open an exhibit of their work at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky, which will be on display until May 26.
The Demaines will speak on “Algorithms Meet Art, Puzzles and Magic” at 5 p.m. April 24 at the Worsham Theater in UK’s Student Center. The next day, at 4 p.m., they will talk on “Geometric Puzzles” at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, room 102.
Their visit was initiated by Dr. Sylvia Cerel-Suhl, a Lexington physician whose son, Adam Suhl, studies with the Demaines at MIT.
Between those lectures, the Demaines will go to Danville to blow glass with Centre College artist Stephen Powell, who they met through mutual friend Lino Tagliapietra, the renowned Italian glass artist. In January, the Demaines plan to spend a week or two at Centre, creating art with Powell and lecturing on mathematics.
In separate telephone interviews last week, the Demaines said they work at the intersection of mathematics and art.
“We have used one to help solve problems with the other,” Martin said. “They are very similar in many ways. They both have these exciting moments when you discover things, when you succeed in visualizing something.”
“It’s all about creativity,” Erik said. “All about having clever ideas and executing those ideas. We look for mathematics in the art we do, and art in the mathematics we do.”
Many grants now require an artist to be part of the team of research scientists, because it brings a different kind of thinking to the problem-solving process. Much of the Demaines’ work at MIT involves acting as “translators” between artists and scientists.
In addition to creating art, the Demaines teach and have published about 80 scientific papers with each other and a variety of fellow researchers.
The Demaines’ current work began with a fascination for origami, the Japanese art of paper folding. The orgiami pieces in their UK show involve precise circular folds that cause paper to bend itself into distinct shapes. The sculptures are composed of several interlocking pieces of folded paper, sometimes enclosed in a blown-glass vessel they made.
“Origami has always been seen as a recreational art,” Erik said. “But we embraced it as a serious thing. That turned out to be a good bet, because there are a lot of applications to science and engineering.”
For example, their origami research has led to safer automobile airbags. Their research discovered new ways to fold up airbags so that, when they deploy, the force is spread more evenly so drivers and passengers are not injured.
Future applications of such folding techniques include self-supporting structures or even space station modules that could deploy themselves when they reach their destination. But the most exciting possibilities are microscopic.
“I think the big application for us would be if we could help develop techniques for protein-folding that would be better for drug design,” Martin said.
“It’s quite exciting,” he added. “It makes life for us an adventure. We are just hoping that more doors will open up.”