Erik DemaineMarch 23, 2009
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 sculptor and glassblower whose only degree was from high school. Together, father and son traveled to art shows around Canada and the United States where they sold crafts to support their journey. Erik’s father instructed him for as little as an hour each day from a homeschool manual, leaving Erik free to pursue his own interests and spend time reading in local libraries.
Describing formal school as “just 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.”
At a young age, Erik became intensely interested in computer games and 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 earned his bachelor’s degree at age 14, 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. “I primarily came because it’s the top place for computer science, but now I realize I like the culture here,” he said of MIT. “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) 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.”
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.”
Although his appreciation for the beauty and joy of mathematics may seem a little geeky, Erik is actually quite down to earth with his sand-blond ponytail and fuzzy beard, jeans, t-shirt, and hiking books. He 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/