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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

From Paper Cranes to Mad Cow Disease

Green bottle by Martin Demaine.
Martin Demaine is an artist and mathematician who is currently an artist in residence at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  After graduating from high school in Massachusetts, he went to England to study glassblowing. Eventually he opened up shop in New Brunswick where his was the first one-man glass studio in Canada.  An excellent craftsman, his work ended up in various major museums.

Martin Demaine at work.

In 1981, he was involved in a very different creation:  his son Erik was born. When Erik was six years old, Martin and Erik formed a puzzle company and distributed their puzzles throughout Canada.  Erik was home-schooled and earned his B.S. at the age of 14. By the time Erik was 20, he had his PhD and was a professor at MIT - said to be the youngest professor MIT ever hired.  In 2003, Erik was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, the so-called genius award, as a computational geometer.

Erik Demaine.  Photo by William Plowman.

His PhD dissertation was seminal in the field of computational origami, and was award-winning in itself.  Together, father and son are jointly engaged in works that involve both mathematics and art, still focusing on the computational complexity of games and puzzles, among other things.

Computational Origami by Martin and Erik Dumaine,
in the permanent collection of MoMA.

In a post I did earlier on origami, I briefly touched on computational origami and mentioned Robert Lang, an earlier pioneer in the field.  This is a type of computer program for modeling the ways that different materials, especially paper, can be manipulated.  Besides amazing origami pieces, such as insects complete with antennae, there is a more practical use (and potentially a lifesaving one).

Origami insects by Japanese artist Taketori, courtesy of his website.

Computational origami basically applies to engineering problems where large surfaces need to be fitted into small or flat spaces without cutting them, just by folding.  For some of us it would facilitate the refolding of a road map.  More importantly, it would facilitate folding airbags - the ideal folds would allow the airbag to function correctly yet take up little space.  Even more importantly, this concept can be applied to computer processors, fitting an enormous amount of data onto the smallest possible area.

But perhaps the most important of all potentialities is studying folds in protein, which Erik Demaine is working on.  Computational origami could ascertain if proteins have "bad folds" and could help crack the secrets of protein structure and sequences.  This could lead to cures for Alzheimer's, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, many cancers, and even mad cow disease.

Basic protein folds, image courtesy of www.cellbiol.net.

However, to compute these complexities requires a computer operating at something like a quadrillion operations per second (1 petaflop, or 1,000 teraflops). IBM has been working on some supercomputers in its Blue Gene project.  Blue Gene is a computer architecture project that explores the production of supercomputers designed to be able to operate in speeds of the petaflops range. Thus far they have reached a peak speed of 596 Teraflops.

A Blue Gene/P supercomputer at Argonne National Laboratory.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
Once the right supercomputer is built, it may still take decades to learn protein folds and their applications to health issues.  But the possibilities are amazing. Today Erik Demaine is a part of the MIT Computational and Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi) which "links biologists, computer scientists and engineers in a multi-disciplinary approach to the systematic analysis of complex biological phenomena".  Martin Demaine is also a visiting scientist and works on computational glassblowing.  From art comes science...

Unless otherwise stated, images from the websites of Martin and Erik Demaine.  
Please check these excellent websites out for more information and clarification:

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