Turning Chaos into Content


How many times have you crumpled up a piece of paper in frustration and tossed it in the trash? Each time you’ve done that, the paper—as you are crumpling it—is acting in a way that is surprisingly consistent with all the other sheets you’ve tossed. Who knew?

It turns out that scientists have discovered a mathematical order to the crumpling of paper, which is predictable and relatively simple. This past November, in his research paper published in the journal Communications Physics, Omer Gottesman, a physicist, noted that, while two separate sheets will crumple differently and accumulate “damage” in a unique way, the total length of all the creases of the two sheets will remain remarkably similar.

Most physicists (and probably most of us non-physicists) are always searching for ways to comprehend disorder by reorganizing information to illuminate the underlying order. They look for ways to understand the chaos through systems, mathematics and replicable patterns. In his work, Gottesman did just that. He analyzed the creases of the crumpled papers and sought to find a consistent variable that would predict what would occur with the next crumpled paper.

After considering a number of possibilities (which I assume meant lots of recycled bins filled to the brim) he noted a trend that pointed to a consistency in the total length of all creases on a crumpled sheet. After scanning multiple sheets into his computer and using an algorithm that measured the total length of all creases, he found that the total crease lengths of separate sheets were similar.

While this all seems random in and of itself, what I find really interesting is how this “discovery” can help other scientists understand patterns in everything that folds. For example, Thomas Witten, a physicist at the University of Chicago, has shown that every material crumples in roughly the same way — a tectonic plate or a cell membrane, even the way DNA packs into a cell nucleus. 

The secrets of life are always unfolding and I’m just glad that for these scientists it all started with a piece of paper.

Does that make sense?

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