The Book of Puzzles and Growing Up

April 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

150 Puzzles (Sole, Tim and Marshall, Rod) & Entertaining Mathematical Puzzles (Gardner, Martin)

Perhaps in playing with these puzzles you will discover that mathematics is more delightful than you expected. Perhaps this will make you want to study the subject in earnest, or less hesitant about taking up the study of a science for which the knowledge of advanced mathematics will eventually be required
Martin Gardner, Entertaining Mathematical Puzzles

The quote above (taken from the Introduction to Gardner’s book) clearly states the objective of the book, and it is to educate, at least as much as it is to entertain. Gardner’s target audience consists largely of high school students, with minds sharp as green chilis and mouldable as dough. His lofty intention is to marinate these impressionable minds in the scientific temper, until it permeates every thought and flavors the way they view the world from that point onwards. Extending the culinary metaphor beyond all permissible limits, dare I say that young minds are guaranteed to sizzle and fry while reading this book? I dare not, and will meekly restrict myself to agreeing that Gardner’s objective is desirable, and approving of his methods.

As a kid, almost 30 years ago, my own interest in mathematics was ignited, then set furiously ablaze, by puzzles – but more about that later. Today, as the parent of pre-teens, I know of no better way to interest one’s children in science than to sit down with them, and transform those sums, with shrewd psychology and verbal legerdemain, from tiresome chores into clever little stories with a plot, some suspense, a climax and a happy ending. Every scientist is first and foremost a puzzle solver: all science is a puzzle, and every scientific  discovery, invention, hypothesis or theory is in essence a proposed solution to some puzzle or the other.

I am tempted to go a step further than Gardner and assert that regardless of chosen profession, problem-solving is a vital survival skill, and people who enjoy solving puzzles will not be the most likely ones to shy away from the larger challenges of life. And even further: along with scientific curiosity and the courage to confront problems, I think puzzle-solving engenders three other utterly desirable qualities.

One, it instils in its lovers a wacky sense of humor, an irrepressible urge to look at life as a kind of a game…as a puzzle to be solved, in fact. Nothing helps cheer you up and retain your sanity in desperate situations like an ability to suddenly discover that ‘MONKEY JERK ONE’ is the anagram of your boss’s name.

Two, it teaches persistence, and patience, and a dogged optimism – nobody became a puzzle solver, who did not have these undeniably useful traits. You try going down one path, you fail, so you dismantle everything you’ve done so far, and you try something different. You don’t give up because you know that each failure eliminates an option, and thereby brings you that much closer to success.

Finally, I know few champion puzzlists who are not also extremely creative. Finding a solution to a devilish problem where none existed before, is not too different, in my mind, to visualizing a future masterpiece where others see a blank canvas and some paint. You can be trained to be reasonably creative, as much as you can be trained to be reasonably proficient in a sport; solving lateral puzzles is as good way to get trained in creative thinking as any.

Gardner, of course, was a legendary recreational mathematician and formidable puzzlist, and this book, given its objective, was one of his easier offerings, meant for novices, and he introduces them to puzzles in fields like topology, probability, and solid geometry. And yet the book has enough in it to trip up the rusty or unwary adult mind as well, so I found it worth the breeze-through.  I look forward to throwing Gardner’s problems at my 12-year old, to see how quick he is, but I think he’ll do just fine with many of them.

The other book under review is in a different class altogether. Tim Sole and Rod Marshall are (were?) Fellows of the Institute of Actuaries, masters of an arcane mathematical science that is all but unknown outside its own esoteric circle.

Back in the eighties, the Institute used to have its own fortnightly newsletter called Fiasco, distributed only among its initiates (I don’t know if it still circulates), a thin but glossy number with pages of dreary actuarial stuff, but redeemed hugely by a puzzle column, edited by Messrs. Sole and Marshall. These were post-graduates in mathematics, mind you, setting puzzles for other like-minded post-graduates, but while the standards varied between very high and tolerable, the sense of humour was uniformly dry and very British, and the range of topics vast. You did need computers to solve a few, even back then, but a pen and paper sufficed for many; an open mind and sheer bloodymindedness could get you through the rest. There were geometric riders, number theory problems, riddles, rebuses, crosswords, cross-NUMBERS, chess problems, bridge problems, Cluedo problems, logical conundrums, outrageous puns, even witty little poems. Amazingly, you didn’t need a Ph.D, or even a college degree, to solve many of them.

In fact, there was a teenager, once, who would wait for that newsletter as eagerly as the entire insurance industry, rip open the envelope when it arrived, and flip the pages impatiently until he came to the puzzle section, featuring the solution to the previous issue’s puzzle, as well as the current puzzle. What heights of pleasure it was to discuss the column with his father, and pore over the puzzle jointly, sometimes for days on end; what unalloyed joy and sense of accomplishment when it was finally solved. Solving tough puzzles with his father must have felt like acknowledgement of grown-up status, possibly – who knows? These things are important to a teenaged boy in ways he himself can never fully comprehend. Perhaps his father felt good about these sessions, too. He would never know – his father and he seldom discussed their feelings. Eventually the boy grew up, went to engineering college, left home, and the puzzles remained a lovely but receding memory in his head for several years.

My father died in September 2006; I remembered the puzzles then, and wrote to the Institute of Actuaries. A very nice and polite Publications Administrator responded shortly thereafter, informing me that the puzzles had been anthologized into a book to mark the 150th anniversary of the Institute, and pointing me to the site from which I could order it online, which I promptly did. And so, if you have a serious interest in puzzles, should you.


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