Tuesday, July 10, 2007

One of My Heroes: Martin Demaine

Martin Demaine, Erik's dad:
[Erik] left school at seven, spending the next 5 years on the road with his dad because it seemed like a fun thing to do. His father, Martin, was a craftsman, making it easy to travel and sell stuff at craft fairs. To him it was a very free-form existence. Their movements weren’t guided by anything more specific than “That seems like an interesting place to go.”

Martin Demaine is now artist-in-residence in the electrical engineering department at MIT and an instructor in the glass lab, making puzzles for glass blowers.

His son, Erik, was the youngest-ever professor at MIT (one speculates whether the "deal" included Dad).

In any case, talk about a committed father, one who takes home schooling to a whole new level.

Do I have that level of commitment and understanding where my children are concerned?

More on Erik (by the way, internet items DO expire, Langolier-like, as the disappearance of this original article I first read back in 2002 shows):

Erik Demaine quit school at the age of 7.

If you had run into him a dozen years ago, it might have been in a bus station somewhere between Halifax, Nova Scotia and Miami Beach, on the road with his father, a silversmith and glassblower whose only degree was from Medford High School. And yet, there he was on Friday, lecturing a roomful of scientists on his obscure specialty: computational origami. Demaine, at 20, arrived in the fall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the rank of assistant professor - one of the youngest the university has ever hired.

But the thing that is truly unusual about Demaine is the story of the path he took to get there - and of his father, Martin Demaine, who has devoted much of his adult life to educating Erik in a decidedly unorthodox way. Raised among hippies and jugglers and free thinkers, Erik Demaine has found himself at the center of a field where abstract math somehow intersects with street performance. That he is a prodigy is not even a question, say people who have worked with him; the question is what will amuse him.

But eight years ago, when the father and son walked into the computer science department of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, they seemed to have emerged from nowhere. ''His dad and he walked into our department and just said he wants to join the university,'' said Sampalli Srinivas, an associate professor. Administrators looked at them like they were crazy.

Erik was 12 years old, he had no board scores, and no high school diploma. But they allowed Erik to take advanced courses in abstract algebra and programming languages. The result was clear by the end of the term: ''He aced every single course,'' Srinivas said. ''I recognized him as one of the brightest students I had.''

Over the next few years, a growing number of Canadian academics heard the story of Erik's migratory education. It was a project that kept father and son on the road for five years, eating $1 meals in rented rooms, and strolling into prestigious universities to talk to professors.

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