New record: toilet paper folded 13 times!

For years, it was thought that a piece of paper could not be folded in half more than seven times. Back in 2002 though, then-high school student Britney Gallivan folded a piece 12 times. And later, Mythbusters tackled the same issue. Now, students the St. Marks School, a Massachusetts prep school, completed 13 folds. From New Scientist:

Based on the thickness of a sheet of paper, a formula can be used to calculate the minimum length needed to fold it a given number of times. Paper roughly doubles in size with each fold and the sides become more rounded, making it harder and harder to bend. Wrinkles also have a significant impact, making the formula difficult to follow in practice. In addition, no single roll is long enough to fold thirteen times, requiring the group to tape together numerous rolls of industrial toilet paper 1.2 kilometers long.

"Students break record by folding toilet paper 13 times"


    1. Cutting your teeth on “fun” problems like this is a great way to learn — this particular problem is a great demonstration of exponentiation.  This required creative problem solving, since once you work the formula and realize you need 1.2 km of paper, you then have to source it.

      This is a lesson these kids will remember for the rest of their lives, unlike a few hours staring at a book which they’ll forget by the summer.

    2. Yeah, you pretty much want avoid having kids  think creatively about problems and solve them going against common beliefs.  Total waste of human thought and energy. 

      We should have stuck to the trees back in the day and enjoyed our prehensile tails and lack of fire.

      1. it’s pretty funny for a group of people who jump to shame people for not being “green,” supporting a waste of almost a mile of paper for something that could be a five second thought experiment.

        professor: you can fold a piece of paper in half if it’s tissue paper. and really long
        kids: oh. cool (goes back to texting)

        I’m sorry, I’m all for hands on science & math but this just seems like a huge waste of resources

        1. I’m guessing the amount of wood pulp in a mile of super-thin industrial toilet paper *might* add up to half a sheet of plywood.  Sure, you have some energy costs over that for the manufacturing, but I’m guessing more total resources were consumed by the fuel and depreciation of the vehicles that brought the kids and teacher to MIT that day.

        2. I think I understand… you’re having a flashback to some critical moment when you really, really needed toilet paper and none was to be found.

          Egad, that’s got to be a difficult memory to have so heartlessly brought back to the surface. It’ll be ok, though.

        3. > it’s pretty funny for a group of people who jump to shame people for not being “green,”

          Some boingers may do that.  Most of us don’t.  You seem to be the only on in this thread doing anything of the sort.

          >  a waste of almost a mile of paper

          A square of TP is 4 inches long.  If 300 million americans use 1 square of TP today (I’m sure they’ll actually use more), that’d be 30,480 km of TP.  These guys didn’t increase the US’s daily use of TP by even 0.01%.  A breakout of e-coli probably causes a bigger increase in TP usage.

        4. That’s amusing.  I am actually accredited as a “green” LEED professional and yet recognize the fact that wood products are actually a fast-growing renewable resource.  Provided that this toilet paper was not made from old-growth forests, I would fully support twice as much use of paper for anyone who wants to actually get out of their desk and learn like this. 

          This is actually their second shot at it, having experimented with it the first time.  That’s the beauty of this, it isn’t a “thought experiment.”  It’s an actual experiment.

        5. You’re just trolling here. Did you ever stop to consider what they did with the toilet paper after they’d finished folding it?

        6. Maybe that teacher could mention the studies done by Canadian psychologists Nina Mazar and Chen-Bo Zhong that show people who are “green” are more likely to lie, cheat, steal, and in general, be pretentious stuck up assholes.

    3. There are lots of practical demonstrations that use resources, they’re not by definition waste.  However I’m inclined to side with the party-pooper in that I don’t think this practical demonstration is really going to make any significant difference to anyone’s education; I’m sure it’s just teacher that wants a Guinness World Record.

      1. If that’s true, they screwed up by not calling Guinness beforehand to have the requisite judge.  Must have done it for some other reason…

  1. Check out dancin’ Dave to the left as they’re completing the 13th fold!
    Calm down, dude! Keep some of that excitement inside.

  2. My mother tried to send me to St. Mark’s, but I demanded to stay in public school.  Now you’ve forced me to revisit that decision in light of this achievement.  Looks like they ditched the uniforms since the 60s.

    1. You made the right decision, probably. St. Mark’s derailed my interest in biology – 4th form(10th grade) biology involved raising a female mouse, charting its estrus cycle and then “sacrificing” it. 3rd form the teacher killed them for you but you started the dissection while it was still warm.
      Richard Evans Shultes told me that he almost became a teacher at St. Mark’s but instead decided to go down to the rainforest. That was a good decision on his part as well.

      1. The weird thing is that the school counselor suggested the move when I was in 8th? grade.  But the public school system in my home town is first-class, with the high school sometimes ranking in the top 100 in the country.

        1. I was watching an old interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson last night in which he mentioned he went to the Bronx High School of Science, and was quite proud to note that it is a public school.

  3. Once you get out past 10 folds or so are you even really folding it.  It’s pretty much like rolling it up. 

  4. Non-linearity, where would we be without it?

    Wherever it is, girls wouldn’t wear orange nylon shorts.

  5. The claim that you can only fold a piece of paper x times has always been one that’s pissed me off. What if you have a piece of paper the size of Australia? It’s it’s all about the weight of the remaining sheet size vs. the resistance provided by the ‘fold’.

    I totally agree that providing real-world examples of maths concepts is one of the best ways to get kids to remember stuff.

    1. I can just imagine you now, sitting on your wingback chair, whiskey in hand, and SMASH!  Your fist meets your occasional table as someone blurts that most emotive of phrases: “You can only fold paper… 7 times”.

  6. Hmm, If I’m not mistaken Ms. Gallivan mathematically proved that it could be done more than 12 times, just there was no paper large enough to fold more than 12. Does taping rolls together prove anything?

  7. doesn’t this really hinge on the type of paper being used? i mean, if you were really set on breaking this record couldn’t you engineer some kind of super thin shit that barely registers as paper, and fold it like 50 times? could you make graphene paper? what constitutes “paper” for the purposes of this experiment?

    1. Whatever type of paper you use you’re still halving it 50 times. Halving it 4 times means your paper is at least 16 times (2^4) shorter than its original length. The thickness only affects the extra length round the ‘corner’.
      So if you have a piece of paper 16 cms long, after 4 folds at will be less than a centimeter long.

      To do your ’50 times’ if you had a piece of paper that stretched to the sun. Even if it was microscopically thin, you’d be trying to fold something less than a 1/1000 of a millimeter by the time you got to the end!

      Or the short answer! Stick 2 to the power of 50 into your calculator. Big number!

  8. To put this in a little perspective: 50 folds of the paper takes us out to the sun. (i.e. (2^50) * original paper thickness > distance to sun)

    So… it *should* be hard to do. :)

  9. I’ve always wondered if this is meant as a practical problem or a theoretical one? I did some rough math and it seems that paper 1 mile long folded 12 times would be 1 foot long. So just start with paper 10 miles long. Or is it a given that it could be done in theory and it’s the actual practice that is considered the challenge (ie: working with 10-mile long paper)? Are the initial 11 folds required? I mean, if we can fold a 2048-sheet stack in half, we can infer that we would have been able to fold it the previous 11 times. That seems to be how they started in this video, with half of it done simply by stacking paper rather than folding it.

  10. I went to high school with Britney Gallivan. For her senior project she recorded a terrible cover album of pop songs including Britney Spears and Cristina Aguilera. Not sure how that was a senior project, but there you go.

  11. I don’t think this is valid as the exercise is stated… “you can’t fold a piece of paper more then seven times” which relies on a somewhat standard sheet of 8.5x 11 paper… that said, I think this is a wonderful hands on way of teaching real math! I can remember trying to fold a pice of binder paper over and over and it’s amazing how fast it shrinks… but I did this in 7th grade, not, prep school. 

  12. The myth has always been about a squar piece of paper, not one of extreme lenght like toilet paper.

    And mythbuster tested this with a huge squar thin piece of paper and I believe they got to about 9 or 10 but even using industrial equipment could not get any further without destorying the paper. No matter how big your paper is, the math doesn’t change. It becomes exponentially thicker with each fold.

    1. Gotta agree… Britney figured out the math, which showed WHY a standard sheet of paper hits its limit at 7/8.

      This, on the other hand, while somewhat amusing, seemed more about getting the world record, which can then be topped by a group that gets an even longer sheet… :)

  13. I didn’t even have to watch the whole video. Once I heard the teacher’s learned, scholarly  english accent I knew it was true.

    1. If you did 16 sheets I think you’d have to tape piece 8 to 9, 7 to 10, 6 to 11, etc on one side, then halve it on the other… 4 to 5 and 12 to 13, 3 to 6 and 11 to 14, etc… and you’d still only be at the 4th fold.

      The fact that I had to stop and count on my fingers to be sure I was right just now makes me respect those kids all the more.  

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