It's no surprise that Erik Demaine counts juggling among his hobbies. The 24-year-old--a home-schooled child prodigy who became M.I.T.'s youngest professor ever at age 20--picks off one arcane math problem after another. "I work on anything I consider fun," he says. "I'm a geek." Demaine, who has already co-written more than 100 papers, specializes in the computational theory of folded structures, most notably the mathematics underlying origami.
What does the Japanese art of paper folding have to do with higher math? Plenty. Demaine's origami work provides insights as readily into the problems of sheet-metal engineering as it does into those of robotics and molecular biology. He made his mark while still a teen by solving two major conundrums: the "fold and cut" and "carpenter's rule" problems. The former asks what types of shapes you can make by folding a sheet of paper and cutting it just once. The answer, Demaine helped prove, is any shape you like. The latter, a long-standing and deceptively complex problem, asks whether every shape formed by folding lines linked by hinges, as in a carpenter's rule, can be unfolded. Demaine helped show it can. Now he's tackling the hottest folding problem of the day: finding the rules that govern how protein molecules twist into the complex shapes that are key to their biological function. Predicting how they do that would help pharmaceutical firms design more effective drugs. --By Unmesh Kher. Reported by Matt Smith/New York