Erik Demaine, named “one of the most brilliant scientists in America” by Popular Science magazine, is a rising star in the area of theoretical computer science – specifically computational geometry, data structures, and algorithms. As a child, he had an unconventional educational background of homeschooling on the road followed by entering college at an early age. However, he shies away from the term “genius,” explaining “I didn’t show any sign of being particularly smart or anything, [except that I had] an unusually long attention span.”
Erik was born on February 28, 1981, in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His parents divorced when he was young, so Erik was raised by his father, a silversmith and glassblower whose only degree was from high school. For five years, father and son traveled to art shows around Canada and the United States as “Erik & Dad Puzzle Co.,” selling crafts and puzzles to support their journey. Erik’s father instructed him for as little as an hour each day out of textbooks borrowed from a group of Seventh-day Adventists.
The father’s educational philosophy was that the child should pursue his own interests, so he let Erik spend most of his time in local libraries, bookstores, and museums. The result is that Erik was able to learn on his own while circumventing years of cramming for tests and memorizing facts. “Memorization is not such a big deal. You remember what you need to remember and look the rest up,” he said. Erik went to school for about a month just to try it out. “It was a fine experience, but it was a much, much slower pace than I was used to,” he admitted, describing formal school as basically “an excuse to meet kids and hang out with them.”
Erik says, “I learned to read early, but it never was as interesting to me as personal experience. I didn’t read textbooks as an undergrad. My father, Martin Demaine, had home-schooled me until I went to university. He was against the whole school thing, [and] wanted to be engaged in my education. Also, my father wanted to travel, so around Grade 2 we started traveling around North America, Canada, and the United States. I got to see a lot of different cultures, meet lots of different kinds of people, different backgrounds, different ages.” Erik thinks that our society is far too age-segregated – “It is my single passive political stance.”
Erik became intensely interested first in computer games, then in computer programming. Erik wrote his first computer program at age seven, a text-based “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style game. When Erik’s ambitions began to outpace his knowledge, his father enrolled him in math and computer science classes at Dalhousie University in their hometown of Halifax, and dad attended class alongside his son. Although Erik was only twelve years old, he aced his courses and recalls “my fellow students were great and treated me like anyone else.” Erik argues that a lot of other people could do what he did if they had the same encouragement. “The thing that really struck me was the way his dad motivated him,” observed professor Sampalli Srinivas.
At age 14, Erik earned his bachelor’s degree, then he went to the University of Waterloo for his master’s degree in math (1996) followed by a Ph.D. (2001). He joined the MIT faculty as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science that same year. At age 20, he was the youngest professor ever hired by the renowned university. When Erik first went to MIT, “I primarily came because it’s the top place for computer science, but now I realize I like the culture here,” he said. “People are excited about projects and love to jump in on them.”
Dr. Erik Demaine is best known for his work involving algorithms and computational geometry in which he gets to combine art, science, and play. He proved mathematically that it is possible to create any conceivable straight-sided shape by folding a piece of paper and making a single scissor cut. This launched the specialty field of computational origami, an interdisciplinary endeavor on the boundary of computer science and mathematics. Dr. Demaine is particularly interested in abstract geometry problems related to folding and bending that have practical applications in fields as diverse as manufacturing (sheet metal fabrication, air bags, candy wrappers), physics (nanostructures), and biology (protein-folding).
In 2003, Dr. Demaine became one of the youngest people ever selected for the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, commonly called “the genius grant.” The award cited him as a “computational geometer tackling and solving difficult problems related to folding and bending — moving readily between the theoretical and the playful, with a keen eye to revealing the former in the latter.” The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awards the grants to “recognize the importance of individual creativity in society by finding people who are creative in their field… and will go on to do great things …to enable recipients to exercise their own creative instincts for the benefit of society at large.”
In 2008, Carnegie Mellon University, in cooperation with the Tokyo University of Technology (TUT), awarded the second annual Katayanagi Prize in Computer Science to Dr. Demaine. The Katayanagi Prizes “honor the best and brightest in the field of computer science,” said Carnegie Mellon President Jared L. Cohon. “Computer science plays a critical role everywhere in the world today, but its greatest researchers and practitioners often go unsung.” TUT President Hideo Aiso added, “I have been very much interested in Dr. Demaine’s research in the emerging field of origami mathematics, since origami is a part of Japanese traditional art and culture.” Also in 2008, Erik collaborated with his father on an artistic collection of mathematical origami displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Martin Demaine is now a technical instructor and artist in residence at the MIT Glass Lab. Erik and his father continue to work closely together, having collaborated on 43 papers over the years. “[My dad’s] background is in visual arts, so he’s been my art influence,” says Erik. “Then I got him interested in algorithms and computer science. Lately we’ve been trying to combine these two.” Thomas Hull, an assistant professor at Merrimack College who has conducted origami research with the Demaines, stated: “Anyone who takes the time to know what Erik is about would know that separating him from his father would be a bad idea.”
Although his appreciation for the beauty and joy of mathematics may seem a little geeky, Erik is actually quite down to earth with a lanky 6-foot-3-inch frame, sand-blond ponytail, fuzzy beard, jeans, t-shirt, and hiking boots. He has a quiet humility and likes to defy what’s popular: “I used to not eat chocolate because it was too popular – therefore it couldn’t be good!” However, he is fond of beef jerky. “Whenever I eat it, I have this image of being in an adventure,” he explains. Erik’s hobbies include: puzzles, game theory, origami, knot tying, string figures, glassblowing, juggling, card tricks, improvisational comedy/ theater, and programming. Visit his website at http://erikdemaine.org.
Quotes by Dr. Erik Demaine
“An algorithm is like a cooking recipe, only for solving a problem.”
“To try to assume anything on the basis of what other people have done is nonsense.”
“Logic is the obvious thing for understanding a problem and all the possible solutions, as opposed to being more emotional about the issue… [When you] prove something, it’s not like you can get upset when it’s true!”
“The whole notion of having information protected doesn’t make sense. It’s illegal to decode a DVD even though it’s encrypted in a stupid way. These days, the purpose of copyright is to protect companies. But, fundamentally, information wants to be free.”
“I know things that no one can prove. [The Gödel Incompleteness Theorem] proves that there are things you can’t prove – yet are true.”
“God … is someone who creates the initial conditions for the universe and sets the rules. Conservation of energy, quantum physics – and then ‘Go!’ The universe is on its own course. From inception on to its destruction, it’s a computer.”
http://web.archive.org/web/20020219043313/http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/048/nation/Road_scholar_finds_home_at_MITP.shtml (“Road scholar finds home at MIT: Origami whiz learned from his nomad dad,” by Ellen Barry, Boston Globe Staff, 2/17/2002.)
http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-131817796.html (“Young Genius Unfolds Math Secrets,” Current Science, a Weekly Reader publication, April 22, 2005.)
www.gather.com/viewArticle.jsp?articleId=281474976717851 (“Erik Demaine: If Only Your Professor Were This Cool,” originally published in Atomica magazine.)
www.ddj.com/architect/210300014 (Dr. Dobb’s “A Conversation with Erik Demaine.”)
http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2003/macarthur.html (“Professor Wins ‘Genius’ Grant,” MIT press release.)
www.nytimes.com/2005/02/15/science/15origami.html?_r=1 (Scientists at Work: “Origami and the Shape of Things to Come,” by Margaret Wertheim.)
http://www.boston.com/news/globe/magazine/articles/2007/06/24/puzzles_will_save_the_world/?rss_id=Boston+Globe+–+Globe+Magazine (“Puzzles Will Save The World,” by Amy Karafin, Boston Globe, June 24, 2007.)
http://dobbscodetalk.com/index.php?option=com_myblog&show=Take-a-course-from-Erik-Demaine.html&Itemid=29 (Take an “Introduction to Algorithms” course from Erik Demaine for free, through MIT’s OpenCourseware.)
http://academicearth.org/speakers/erik-demaine (A collection of free video lectures by Erik Demaine, from MIT Open Courseware.)
http://erikdemaine.org/puzzles/ (An assortment of free printable puzzles by Erik and Martin Demaine.)