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Robert V. Kohn : A Variational Perspective on Wrinkling Patterns in Thin Elastic Sheets: What sets the patterns seen in geometry-driven wrinkling?

The wrinkling of thin elastic sheets is very familiar: our skin wrinkles, drapes have coarsening folds, and a sheet stretched over a round surface must wrinkle or fold.

What kind of mathematics is relevant? The stable configurations of a sheet are local minima of a variational problem with a rather special structure, involving a nonconvex membrane term (which favors isometry) and a higher-order bending term (which penalizes curvature). The bending term is a singular perturbation; its small coefficient is the sheet thickness squared. The patterns seen in thin sheets arise from energy minimization -- but not in the same way that minimal surfaces arise from area minimization. Rather, the analysis of wrinkling is an example of "energy-driven pattern formation," in which our goal is to understand the asymptotic character of the minimizers in a suitable limit (as the nondimensionalized sheet thickness tends to zero).

What kind of understanding is feasible? It has been fruitful to focus on how the minimum energy scales with sheet thickness, i.e. the "energy scaling law." This approach entails proving upper bounds and lower bounds that scale the same way. The upper bounds tend to be easier, since nature gives us a hint. The lower bounds are more subtle, since they must be ansatz-free; in many cases, the arguments used to prove the lower bounds help explain "why" we see particular patterns. A related but more ambitious goal is to identify the prefactor as well as the scaling law; Ian Tobasco's striking recent work on geometry-driven wrinkling has this character.

Lecture 1 will provide an overview of this topic (assuming no background in elasticity, thin sheets, or the calculus of variations). Lecture 2 will discuss some examples of tensile wrinkling, where identification of the energy scaling law is intimately linked to understanding the local length scale of the wrinkles. Lecture 3 will discuss our emerging undertanding of geometry-driven wrinkling, where (as Tobasco has shown) it is the prefactor not the scaling law that explains the patterns seen experimentally.

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