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MIT’s Demaine Wins ‘Genius Grant’

By Brian Loux

FEATURES EDITOR

The Tech: So let me get this straight: What’s your birthdate?

Erik D. Demaine: February 28, 1981.

TT: OK, that makes you ten months older than me. And roughly, what’s your MIT salary?

Demaine: My salary? About $75,000.

TT: OK, now we’ll add that to the half-million you just got, and now we’ll look at my loans... this interview is over.

Demaine: What? You still got ten months!

Professor of Computer Science Erik D. Demaine, the youngest professor at MIT, is now also the winner of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

The so-called “Genius Grant” is a monetary award of $500,000 given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation 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,” said Roy Boyer, associate vice president for public affairs of the MacArthur Foundation.

Demaine is largely known for his creative work involving algorithms and computational geometry, or using folding algorithms to examine the results that can be generated. Demaine’s interest in the field began when his father began to teach him origami. The field has mushroomed in recent years as more and more applications for the field -- such as protein folding -- are discovered.

“There are a lot of [areas of research] that have been passed over, ... a lot of basic questions that nobody ever asked,” Demaine said, recognizing that knot theory had a similar history. “It has led to some deep mathematics, like in knot theory. ... Whether [computational geometry] is a big area remains to be seen.”

Demaine is the 14th MIT professor to receive the foundation’s grant, joining professors such as Eric S. Lander in biology, Noam A. Chomsky in linguistics, and most recently, professor Sendhil Mullainathan in economics. Demaine is also the youngest recipient of the fellowship this year.

Unconventional schooling

With an unusually bright professor comes an unusual history. He was “home-schooled” by his father, Martin L. Demaine from age seven to twelve, which actually involved visiting various cities of North America, selling crafts to support their journey, and reading what captured his fancy in local libraries and bookstores.

Demaine said that he did attend a public school in Miami Beach because of a girl who went there. “My father encouraged [me to] go, but when I realized she wasn’t interested in me, I stopped,” he said.

Demaine said that despite his unusual schooling, social interaction remained an integral part of his life. “Either by my dad’s design or by luck, I just hung out with kids when they returned home from school for the rest of the day,” he said.

At the age of 12, Demaine entered Dalhouise University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take advanced courses in the computer science department. The skeptical department heads were convinced of his merit when he aced the courses. He received his bachelor’s degree in two years and his PhD (at the University of Waterloo) in six.

In the same year, Demaine came to MIT with his father (who is a visiting scholar at MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science). “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.”

While at MIT, Demaine has continued his research in puzzles, recently proving the game of Tetris is so difficult as to belong to a class of problems known as “NP-complete.”

“Essentially, I proved that it is computationally intractable -- or that the computer can’t necessarily win,” said Demaine. “If I told [the computer] all the pieces that will come, and it had infinite dexterity so falling pieces weren’t a concern, could [the computer] stay alive? And it can’t ... it’s what makes Tetris such a hard puzzle and what I think makes Tetris so fun to play.”

Colleagues congratulate Demaine

Many of Demaine’s colleagues have come forth to congratulate him on the honor.

“I was extremely happy,” said Anna Lubiw, an associate professor of Computer Science at the University of Waterloo and one of his PhD supervisors. “The award says it is for outstanding creativity and marked capacity for self-direction, and that’s Erik.”

Amidst colleagues’ praise for the professor’s academic accomplishments, there dwelt a strong respect for his warm and personable attitude.

“It really couldn’t happen to a more deserving and nicer guy,” said Joseph O’Rourke, chair of computer science at Smith College. “It’s a great confirmation of his work. It is amazing that we’re discovering things about paper folding, which has been around for thousands of years, and yet still there are so many deep mysteries about it.”

O’Rourke and Demaine are collaborating on a book entitled Folding and Unfolding, which first drew the foundation’s attention to Demaine’s work.

Demaine said that he is not too certain about how he will use the grant, which is free to be used as the recipient pleases. He said it will mostly help him travel and visit colleagues to do collaborative work, though he also mentioned constructing an art or architecture project based on mathematics.