Ian Stewart is retiring from the Prospect Enigma after 11 years. In his last issue, he explains his love of puzzlesby by Ian Stewart / December 12, 2013 / Leave a comment
Farewells are always poignant: think of Romeo taking his leave of the fair Juliet, tragically oblivious to narrative imperative; Doctor Watson reporting “with a heavy heart” the (presumed) demise of his friend at the Reichenbach Falls; Winnie the Pooh’s emotional goodbyes to Christopher Robin—
I’ll get me coat. Indeed, I will, for this is my last “Enigmas & puzzles” column.
Enigmas made its debut in January 2003. Before then I’d been writing the “Mathematical recreations” column for Scientific American, following in the footsteps of the inimitable Martin Gardner, a journalist with strong interests in stage magic and puzzles. In 1956 he wrote an article for the magazine about a new mathematical game, flexagons, which was such a success with readers that the editor asked him to write a regular column on mathematical games. It ran until 1981, and was written in an engaging and comprehensible style that won him thousands of fans, myself among them.
Puzzles don’t appeal to everyone, but there’s a loose-knit community of enthusiasts—some of them mathematicians—who relish the intellectual challenge of a new problem, trade ideas, find ingenious ways to “cook” a puzzle (find a solution that has been overlooked, or a loophole in the wording), and post puzzles on Twitter. Among them are John Horton Conway, who invented the “game of life” in which black and white dots obeying simple rules behave in amazingly complex ways, and Persi Diaconis and Ron Graham, who recently wrote a book on the mathematics of magic tricks. All three are distinguished research mathematicians.
Even so, it’s tempting to see puzzles as a rather trivial pastime. The great British mathematician Godfrey Harold Hardy surely thought so. In his 1940 essay “A Mathematican’s Apology,” he remarks that only four numbers (153, 370, 371, and 407) equal the sum of the cubes of their digits, writing: “These are odd facts, very suitable for puzzle columns… but there is nothing in them which appeals much to a mathematician.” It’s true that such things lack deep significance, but bare-hands messing around with simple concepts in an interesting context is an excellent way to develop basic mathematical abilities.
It worked for me. As a kid, my friends and I invented elaborate games with complicated rules—tiddlybowls, a tabletop version of bowls with tiddlywinks; Red Fred (nothing like blackjack); a massive extension of the Buccaneer board game which occupied an entire room. We once tossed five dice…