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Mon December 5, 2011
The Two-Way

Record Folders: 54,000 Feet Of Paper; 13 Folds; One New Standard

Using 54,000 feet of toilet paper and the 825-foot long "Infinite Corridor" at MIT as a workspace, students from a small boarding school in Massachusetts say they broke an unofficial record for folding paper on Sunday.

Mythbusters fans may recall the episode where the crew took a football field-sized piece of paper and were able to fold it over 11 times. The TV stars used equipment and folded in different directions as they progressed

Math teacher James Tanton and his students from St. Mark's School, though, took aim at the more traditional record — 12 folds, always from the same direction. And they managed to do 13 folds, Tanton says in the video they shot during the record attempt.

Tanton and students from the school had been trying for six years to do this. Last April, they hit 13 folds but didn't claim the record because the paper couldn't stand on its own when they were done folding. Sunday, using about twice as much paper as before, they got it right.

We called Tanton this afternoon and started by asking what the lesson is from doing this. "It's all about the powers of two," he said, and how in this case 54,000 feet — 10 miles — of paper could be folded 13 times into an object "only five feet long."

"That's the power of exponential decay right there," Tanton said. And, of course, the lesson can be reversed to consider exponential growth.

One thing we didn't quite understand from the video was how first stacking the toilet paper into 64 layers was really OK in a paper-folding exercise such as this. As Tanton explained it, there wasn't much choice. "We're going to go with 54,000 feet of paper. That does not exist," he said. "We knew we were going to have to tape strips of paper together to get one great big long strip. And actually, taping is to our disadvantage" because the tape is thicker than the paper. So, they arranged the paper in layers."

What's more, he said, the layering created the equivalent of six folds — and the creases that go along with such folding. Creases are the bane of paper folders' efforts because they become so difficult to deal with as things go along.

So what's next? "Fourteen is calling, of course it's calling," Tanton said.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.