As reported in Quanta Magazine, Franklin & Marshall College’s own Dr. Thomas Hull proved that –astonishingly – origami can be a computer.

Dr. Hull, an Associate Professor of Applied Mathematics, is a new face on campus. Arriving at F&M in 2023, Hull previously worked at Western New England University and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Rhode Island in 1997. 

Receiving an email out of the blue one day, Dr. Hull stumbled across a novel thought experiment by Dr. Inna Zakharevich of Cornell University – what if paper could do math?

Precisely, Dr. Zakharevich, an origami hobbyist, reasoned that folding origami could form a “logic gate,” like a computer, by computing 1s and 0s depending on the specific paper fold. Dr. Zakharevich envisioned the idea after learning that John Conway’s famous Game of Life could be a computer.

Zakharevich enlisted the help of Dr. Hull, an expert in the mathematics of origami. Speaking with Quanta Magazine, Hull hypothesized that it was “probably” Turing complete. Something is “Turing complete” if it can be used as a Turing machine, a mathematical device capable of solving calculations – a computer. Working with Dr. Zakharevich, an algebraic topography specialist, the dynamic duo found their answer: a resounding yes.

Although an extremely inefficient way of computing, origami can calculate any problem your computer can – if you’re extraordinarily patient. Folding the origami with “True” and “False” inputs, the user could – theoretically – get the correct answer to any problem. But, with a “gargantuan” number of paper folds needed, it’s an exceedingly impractical computer, according to Dr. Hull. 

The thought experiment shows that the world of math is always expanding with new problems and proofs to be solved. The efforts of Dr. Hull and Zakharevich demonstrate that, while not a required subject at F&M, the world of mathematics is alive and well in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. 

Asked for comment by The College Reporter, Dr. Hull directed attention to a 2012 interview with the British Origami Society, wherein Hull talked about how he got into the math of origami. 

“I started origami around eight years old,” Hull explained, continuing, “I had an uncle, who gave me my first origami book… I would distinctly remember thinking: there’s math here. I did not know what it was, it looked kind of scary to me, but I already knew I liked math and I thought it was exciting.” After that, it was off to the races for the future Ph.D. in mathematics, who has authored numerous books and papers on the subject of origami math. 

In only his first year as a professor at F&M, Hull demonstrates great promise for the future of the mathematics department on campus. We hope that Dr. Hull’s early promise on campus will bring a renaissance for the field of math in the hearts and minds of aspiring Diplomat mathematicians.

Freshman Richie Dockery is a Staff Writer. His email is rdockery@fandm.edu

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