Lake Norman & Mooresville

Students, volunteers help make a ‘MegaMenger’

Davidson College was one of more than 20 sites engaged in a global effort to create the world’s largest model of a MegaMenger sponge, built out of business cards.

But, like several of the sites involved, volunteers crafting the origami-like creations fell short of meeting the deadline. Last week, though, they continued to work on the project.

Supported by Queen Mary University of London and the Martin Gardner Global Celebration of Mind Gatherings, the plan was for each location to build a level-three sponge Oct. 20-26 and combine them virtually via video chats at the Celebration of the Mind on Oct. 26.

Named for mathematician Karl Menger, a Menger sponge is a three-dimensional fractal composed of many cubes of varying yet corresponding sizes.

A fractal is a mathematical phenomenon in which a pattern is repeated infinitely at every scale. The folded business cards are put together using no glue or tape.

As of Nov. 4, only 11 level-three sponges had been finished, and 10 others were in progress. The entire MegaMenger will be made of more than 1 million business cards.

Organizers say its surface area – when combined virtually – would encompass the entire Earth.

Dubbed a “distributed fractal project,” volunteers will build 8,000 small cubes out of tens of thousands of business cards. These will be combined in groups of 20 to create 400 level-one Menger sponges.

Those sponges will be combined into groups of 20 to make 20 level-two sponges, which in turn form one massive level-three sponge about 5 feet tall. The 20 level-three sponges, when finished, will form a distributed level-four sponge, and organizers estimate it will be the largest one ever made out of business cards.

Donna Molinek, professor of mathematics at Davidson, and student Annie Tang organized the effort on campus. The group expected to complete their portion by Nov. 9.

The project was funded by the Davidson College department of Mathematics and Computer Science, a Spike! Grant from the Friends of the Arts, and the Robert C. Whitton Mentoring Fund.

Molinek, who has taught at the college for 22 years, said most of the cards were donated from around the area, including from individual businesses, the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce and old ones from Davidson College employees.

The rest were cut from cardstock by the college’s Central Services, giving them the 48,000 cards needed to build the structure. The 20,000 paneling cards – with the design clad on the exposed surfaces of the structure – were sent by the organizers of the project.

Molinek said it’s been a whirlwind since the deadline week.

“I think we all want to finish, and we will … ,” she said. “We just needed to pause and get some of the work done that we put off while building.

“We talked with other sites live on (Oct. 26) from Manchester, New York, Salem … and San Francisco,” she said. “ Only four or five of the 20 finished by (that) evening, and others have been finishing up as the days have passed.

“But I get the impression that so many had such a good time working on the project that no one was too distraught over not being finished. But we all want to see it through.”

A highlight of the project, Molinek said, is how it combines art and math.

“It’s a tangible way to visualize the fascinating topic of fractals while being part of a local and worldwide effort,” she said.

Tang, a senior majoring in math and economics, said more than 100 people participated in building at least one cube.

“I have been having a lot of fun working on this project, both building it and organizing it,” she said. “It has definitely been a rewarding experience working with Dr. Molinek on the details surrounding the build and seeing it come alive.”

Erica Shook, 20, a sophomore, helped make hundreds of them, and she taught several others how to make them.

“It is very addicting. Once you start, it’s really fun. However, making the first cube can be frustrating and confusing. But once you get past the first one, it’s easy,” she said.

“I think the story is about how all kinds of people – young and not-so-young, mathematicians and non-mathematicians, students and professors – are coming together to make this really cool art installation,” Shook said.

Shook’s advice to others is to have fun, but to watch out, because you might learn something about fractals.

“You may even find that math is really cool,” she said.