By Robert V. Kohn
The following is a short introduction to an invited lecture to be presented at the upcoming 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting (AN18) in Portland, Ore., from July 9-13. Look for feature articles by other AN18 invited speakers introducing the topics of their talks in future issues.
(a) In some situations, wrinkling patterns are highly ordered and reproducible. Such patterns can be useful when measuring the physical properties of sheets or designing templates for self-assembly, for example.
(b) Wrinkled configurations are local minima of a variational problem—the elastic energy of the sheet—with a rather special structure. Understanding their properties is a problem in energy-driven pattern formation, a current frontier in the calculus of variations.
(c) We would like to understand the features of low-energy configurations in specific settings; this will help us separate universal phenomena from those that depend, for example, on the history of loading.
(d) Strong analogies exist between the wrinkling of elastic sheets and pattern formation in other physical systems, such as liquid crystals, ferromagnets, and superconductors. Progress in any of these areas has the potential to yield insight for the others.
What kind of mathematics is this? The elastic energy of a thin sheet consists of a nonconvex membrane energy (which prefers isometry) plus a small coefficient times bending energy (which penalizes curvature). The bending term is a singular perturbation; its small coefficient is the sheet thickness squared. The patterns and defects in thin sheets arise from energy minimization — but not in the same way that minimal surfaces arise from surface area minimization. Rather, analysis of wrinkles and folds involves the asymptotic character of minimizers in the limit as the sheet thickness tends to zero.
Wrinkling is observed in a diverse array of different situations. When a sheet is under tension, any wrinkles must be parallel to the tensile direction, and understanding the length scale of wrinkling is the main goal. The situation is more complicated when wrinkling serves to avoid biaxial compression. In such situations, even the orientation of the wrinkling is far from clear.
The 2018 SIAM Annual Meeting is co-located with the 2018 SIAM Conference on Mathematical Aspects of Materials Science. My invited talk, which is part of both meetings, will develop the aforementionted topics, focusing on recent examples in which the identification of energy scaling laws has produced some interesting surprises.
 Bella, P., & Kohn, R.V. (2017). Wrinkling of a thin circular sheet bonded to a spherical substrate. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. A, 375(2093), 20160157.