Demaine’s office is on the sixth Floor of MIT’s Building 32, the Frank Gehry–designed home of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The day I arrive, Demaine is seated at his desk in a T-shirt and black jeans. We haven’t chatted for 15 minutes when a somewhat shorter, older version of him walks in and joins the conversation. Erik’s father, Marty, wears the same uniform: a T-shirt and black jeans. Like his son, he sports a ponytail, a pair of oval-framed glasses, and a modest growth of facial hair.
Whether intended or not, their matching appearance speaks to a lifetime spent in close collaboration. After Marty and his wife split up, he took Erik, then just seven, on a four-year road trip from their home in Halifax, Nova Scotia, across North America, homeschooling him along the way. When Erik entered college (administrators at Dalhousie University bent the rules in order to accept a 12-year-old), his father attended classes right beside him. Then Marty followed his son to the University of Waterloo in Ontario, where Erik completed his doctorate, and then on to MIT.
Son and father work together daily. When not on campus, they often travel as a team to scientific meetings, giving joint lectures and demonstrations. (In one, Marty posed as an angry heckler, only to remove his wig and reveal the prank midway through.) They’ve performed side-by-side in improv shows, and they still live together too. Of all the work that Erik does, the projects with his father tend to be the most contagious, in the sense that they feed back into his other interests. Erik and Marty often say they’re working on “recreational algorithms,” which is, Erik says, “sort of a catchall for anything that we do for fun.”
In recent years, Erik and Marty have written papers on the Rubik’s Cube, brainteasers involving dice, and tricky schemes for hanging picture frames. Even Erik’s more serious work, such as modeling the dynamics of protein folding or developing algorithms to enhance computer efficiency, follows from the same impulse: “It’s got to be cool,” he says. “Ultimately, everything I do I kind of view as recreational, in that I do it because I enjoy it.”
The bookshelves in his office are filled with toys and tchotchkes and paper foldings that he’s made with Marty. “I feel like a connoisseur of games,” he says sitting beside a 52-inch TV cabled to a Nintendo Wii. “I try to play almost every game for at least a little while, just to get a sense for the different genres.” Lately, some of the projects he and Marty are undertaking seem less like games and more like studies of the absurd. For one, they’ve been leaving breadcrumbs in a circle in the park to see how birds respond. For another, they will study the geometry of pasta shapes. They also plan to lock a pigeon in a cage of bread so it can peck its way to freedom. The projects may seem pointless now, but then it’s hard to say where play might lead.
The coincidence of the brilliant and the playful mind has a long history in science. Among its most famous exemplars was the 19th-century Scottish physicist and child prodigy James Clerk Maxwell. At 14 years old, Maxwell wrote his first scientific paper, on a method he’d devised for tracing curves using pins and thread. In his early twenties, as a fellow at Trinity College, he became interested in spinning tops. He attached colored paper to the tops of the toys and spun them around like whirling pie charts. He would record how the colors appeared to merge in motion. Maxwell found that red and green and blue could mix to make any color, a discovery that eventually led him to invent the color photograph.
“The only way you can do breakthrough research is constantly to play with phenomena,” says Robert Root-Bernstein, a physiologist and winner of his own MacArthur grant. Root-Bernstein and his wife, Michele, a historian and adjunct professor at Michigan State University, have studied creativity and how scientific genius manifests. (They wrote a book on the creative process called Sparks of Genius.) “If you don’t have that playfulness,” Root-Bernstein says, “you’re never going to have the breadth of experiences necessary to run into something, in a sense, by accident.”
Maxwell’s case is just one example of how play has fostered scientific discovery. Alexander Fleming’s identification of penicillin may have been inspired by his passion for painting agar plates with brightly colored microbes. (The fungus Penicillium happens to be an intense blue-green.) The quantum theoretician Richard Feynman began his work on the precession of electron orbits after watching a tossed plate wobble through the air in the Cornell cafeteria. “That’s what play does for you,” Root-Bernstein says. “You learn all the rules of the game, and then you know when something unexpected or interesting has occurred.”single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.