April 19, 2015


Written for Canadian Community News by Mike Sterling

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From time to time we all get puzzles that are interesting from friends.

Scientific American used to have a column written by Marten Gardner.  They featured puzzles that could be solved by lay people and professional alike. 

Termed recreational mathematics, they were more. 

Some of them exposed areas of science and mathematics that were obscure and sometimes new.

Gardner was not trained in mathematics or science as his degree was in philosophy.  He had a great interest in both, however, and an ability to dig up and frame a puzzle.  Most of all he sustained public interest from the 50s to the 80s.

He also was a skeptic in areas he called 'pseudo-science'.  This debunking has continued in Scientific American with a monthly column by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine.  Most any reader of Scientific American reads his one page column each month.

Gardner was the prime mover in what he and others called 'Recreational Mathematics'

After Gardner's retirement and death, Scientific American tried to continue his column with mixed success and for now it has disappeared.  One legacy has continued and it concerns skepticism. 

Gardener did not like pseudo-science or science that was not real as practiced by blowhards.  What this amounted to was disdain for groups and individuals who dream up their own sense of truth and logic.  He disliked people inventing their form of reasoning.

Now back to Gardner's puzzles...  There were two primary types:

1.  Pure exercises in logic.  These usually were solved by placing the 'facts' in some sort of order, often a matrix and then by process of elimination zeroing in on the truth.  What clues are relevant?  How does the solution reveal itself?

2.  There were others that tended to have a geometric root that in the rare case exposed areas of mathematics that were little known and new. 

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These special ones, sometimes, spurred intense and long lasting interest.  One of them was Flexagons.  First discovered in 1939 by Stone at Princeton, Gardner introduced them to the general public in 1956

I've thought of initiating a puzzle column in Canadian Community News, but I'm not sure that I could sustain it or make it interesting enough and above all new.

With the Internet full of good puzzles,  I could call on this treasure chest, but that might be boring as people would just look up the answer.

Over a lifetime, I've discovered a few, a very few new things.  While thrilling for me, it would be boring to most.

What is most interesting is the ability of some puzzles to open up whole new areas of thought.  One of these is 'The Seven Bridges of Koeniqsberg' first solved by Leonhard Euler in 1735.  It was a puzzle that those living in the area knew well. Euler's solution resulted in the creation of two new disciplines, Graph Theory and Topology.

What might be good, if hard to do, would be to enlist a few  friends and readers to write about things that have interested them.  These would not have to be puzzles, but discoveries that they found thrilling in their life.  How about that?

Stay tuned ...

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Sunday, April 19, 2015