Or Not

In today’s world many misconceptions have been perpetuated—becoming modern day “facts”—when, in reality, myths and hearsay have taken over. Sorry to burst your bubble, but in this weekly column, Ripley’s puts those delusions to the test, turning your world upside down, because you can’t always…Believe It!

Today: How many times can paper be folded in half? 

Although doing so is mightily difficult and can take some clever thinking, many people still believe it is impossible to fold a piece of paper in half more than seven times. In truth, it can be and has been done, though you’re not likely to be able to achieve this feat without help.

paper folds

Why Seven Times?

For many years, school children were told they couldn’t fold any piece of paper (no matter how long or thick) more than seven times. The belief was it would be mathematically impossible to do so. In most instances upon hearing this assertion, kids were baffled, tried it, found it to be true on their one and only attempt, and then never thought about it again. The reason for this is two-fold: most people who tried it all used the same general type of paper, and they weren’t willing to try more than once or think outside the box.

A regular piece of paper is about 300 mm long and .05 mm thick. When you fold it in half, you divide the length in half and double the thickness (150 mm and .1 mm, respectively). As your folding continues, you make the paper shorter but thicker, making it harder and harder to achieve a fold. Still, not everyone was stumped during their school years by this seemingly impossible task.

Britney Gallivan, Paper Folder and Mathematician

Like most kids, Britney Gallivan of Pomona, California was told this myth, but she correctly believed more than seven folds could be achieved with the right combination of factors. In 2002, when she was a junior in high school, Britney and her friends used a unique type of toilet paper to create a piece of paper that was 4,000 ft or 1,200 m in length. From it, they were able get 12 folds!

But that wasn’t the end of Britney’s tale. She even created her own equation where t represents the paper’s thickness or width and the answer, L, will provide you with how long the paper will need to be in order to be able to fold it.

paper folding theorem

One of the ways in which Britney thought outside the box was this: who ever said the paper had to be folded in alternating directions? As such, Britney’s equation is specifically designed for folding paper in the same direction each time. Since then, her story was mentioned on several TV shows, and in 2006, she was the keynote speaker at the convention for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. A year later, she graduated from the University of California, Berkley with an environmental science degree.

Try It Yourself!

After Britney’s triumph, others have taken cues from her and also managed to fold a single piece of paper more than 7 times. The current record is 13 folds, held by several students from St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts. They used 54,000 ft of toilet paper to achieve this feat!

Let this be a lesson, then, to all of us: things that seem impossible may instead be achievable with the help of several friends, some tenacity, and a healthy skepticism about long-held beliefs in unproven concepts.

By Julia Tilford, contributor for Ripleys.com