Posted in Science & Nature

Folding Paper

Take any piece of paper and fold it in half. Then fold it in half again. Chances are, you will not be able to fold the paper more than seven times. Try it. No matter how thin the piece of paper is, it is extremely difficult to fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times. The reason? Mathematics.

A standard sheet of office paper is less than 0.1mm thick. By folding it in half, the thickness doubles and becomes 0.2mm. Another fold increases it to 0.4mm. Already, the problem can be seen. Folding a paper in half doubles the thickness, meaning every fold increases the thickness exponentially (2ⁿ). By seven folds, the thickness is 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 128 times the original thickness. This makes the piece of paper so thick that it is “unfoldable”.

Another limitation is that folding the paper using the traditional method means the area also halves, decreasing exponentially. With a standard piece of paper, the area of the paper is so small after seven folds that it is mechanically impossible to fold it. Furthermore, the distortion caused by the folds is too great for you to apply enough leverage for folding the paper.

Could these limitations be overcome by using a larger piece of paper? Sadly, no matter how large the piece of paper, it is impossible (or at least extremely difficult) to fold a piece of paper over seven times. This has been a mathematical conundrum for ages, until it was solved in 2002 by a high school student named Britney Gallivan. Gallivan demonstrated that using maths, she could fold a piece of paper 12 times. The solution was not simple though. To fold the paper 12 times, she had to use a special, single piece of toilet paper 1200m in length. She calculated that instead of folding in half every other direction (the traditional way), the least volume of paper to get 12 folds would be to fold in the same direction using a very long sheet of paper.

Mathematics, along with science, is what makes something that seems so simple, impossible.

Leave a Comment!