How To News Science

How to fold a piece of paper in half, 13 times (2nd attempt, an update)

Giant Roll of Toilet Paper
Giant Roll of Toilet Paper

Remember back in April when Web Watch told you about the class that ATTEMPTED TO FOLD A SINGLE PIECE OF PAPER ONTO ITSELF 13 TIMES in order to set a new World Record… and failed?

Well, Web Watch has an update for you on this.

First, some background: 

St. Mark’s School teacher Dr James Tanton had a mission to break a world record for paper folding.  Referencing a math proof by Britney Gallivan, it was proven that a single piece of paper could be folded in half, then in half again, then in half again (and so on and so on) a total of 12 times before it physically became impossible to fold it in half again.

Dr Tanton wanted to prove that you could, in fact, fold a single piece of paper over onto itself a total of 13 times.  And back in April when his class attempted to do this using a super-long hallway at MIT, they failed when the stacked paper collapsed and wouldn’t hold its structure.

So Dr Tanton vowed to try again.

And they succeeded.  His math class was able to FOLD A PIECE OF PAPER ONTO ITSELF 13 TIMES.

And if you were wondering how they did it, here’s some of the facts:

  • It took 17 students more than seven hours of work
  • They used 53,000 feet of toilet paper.  That’s over 10 miles long!
  • When folded, the final stack of paper was five feet long, and 2 1/2-feet high, and 8,192 layers thick

How is it 8,192 layers thick, you ask?  Well, if you take one run of paper and fold it over once, then you have two layers.

Fold it over twice, and you now have four layers.

Fold it three times, you’ll have 8 layers.

Fold four times, that’s 16 layers thick.

five times = 32 layers thick

six times = 64 layers thick

seven times = 128 layers thick

eight times = 256 layers thick

nine times = 512 layers thick

ten times = 1024 layers thick

11 times = 2048 layers thick

12 times = 4096 layers thick

And we’ll let you do the final math on that 13th fold.

The students did this by unrolling the paper in the 825-foot long Infinite Corridor at MIT, so they didn’t have to worry about outside weather affecting the paper.  That’s only about 64 trips up-and-down that hallway to make this happen. 

Not a bad way for students to learn a little something about math, physics, and the power of tear-free toilet paper.

Next up?  Figuring out if they can fold a piece of paper 14 times.  Web Watch is sure that there is likely a physical limit to this project — but it’s certainly something that anyone can try – you don’t need a math degree to fold paper.