Performing some mental gymnastics on Puzzle Day

29 January is Puzzle Day, the day to celebrate all things puzzle related.

Of course puzzles are wonderful things, created to challenge, to entertain, to confound, even to frustrate when we cannot solve them. They come in all shapes and forms – jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, soduko, three-dimensional challenges, folding puzzles, disentanglement puzzles, cryptograms, mathematical puzzles, word puzzles, mazes, riddles, lateral thinking puzzles, logical paradoxes, you name it. No matter what your specific interests, there’s sure to be a puzzle type that tickles your fancy.

Personally, I’ve never been the biggest crossword fan (somehow just never got into it), but I do quite enjoy the odd maths puzzle and I love a good 3-D challenge, especially a tough disentanglement puzzle.

Untangling intricately combined metal shapes - disentanglement puzzles can provide hours of frustrating fun.(© All Rights Reserved)
Untangling intricately combined metal shapes – disentanglement puzzles can provide hours of frustrating fun.
(© All Rights Reserved)

While puzzles are often merely used for entertainment purposes, they can also serve a more specific cause. Companies like Microsoft have been known to challenge job interviewees with logical puzzles to test their logical, deductive skills. Puzzles can also stem from real-life mathematical or logistical problems, in which case the efforts to solve them can potentially contribute to basic mathematical research.

Not only are puzzles fun – they can also be quite beneficial to your mental development.  According to a University of Chicago study, kids playing with puzzles develop better spatial skills. Puzzles also improve hand-eye coordination, fine motor skills, logical problem solving ability and memory.

A recent study also suggests that people who regularly exercise their minds with puzzles are a lot less likely to develop brain plaques that are tied to Alzheimer’s disease. Other beneficial activities include reading and writing.

All research seem to agree that regularly mental exercise are as beneficial to your mind as physical exercise is to your body, and the earlier you start the better. While starting to do crossword puzzles or taking up chess after retirement may help a little, the real benefits are gained by those who start early in life.

So why not use this Puzzle Day to kick-start your daily brain-gym? Here are a couple of interesting sites you may want to visit:

Enjoy some mental gymnastics on Card Playing Day

Today, 28 December, is Card Playing Day – the day to celebrate all games involving your classic deck of cards.

When you think about it, a deck of cards is a pretty impressive creation – the diversity and complexity covered in all the games using a card deck is quite staggering. From games testing cunning and deception (poker), to games teaching teamwork and planning (bridge), to those based on statistical probability and counting skills (blackjack), to visual pattern-matching games (rummy), to the single-player solitaire/patience type games, and hundreds more in-between, the options are almost limitless. And all this based on a simple collection of 52 playing cards, involving four different ‘suits’ of 13 cards each.

Playing cards - a world of complexity lurking in a deck of 52 cards.(© All Rights Reserved)
Playing cards – a world of complexity lurking in a deck of 52 cards.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Playing cards have a long history – they were first found in China as early as the 9th century, and appeared in Europe around the 14th century. The first card decks containing the now-standard 52 cards consisted of suits with themes like polo sticks, coins, swords and cups. The famous suits of spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs, as we still use today, was first introduced in France around 1480. The Kings, Queens and Knaves (Jacks) in the different suits were based on English and French history, and referred to different historical characters such as King David, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, and others.

Beyond the historical connotations, a range of symbolic meanings are attached to the deck of cards as we know it. The 13 cards in each suit is said to refer to the 13 months of the lunar year; the 52 cards corresponds to the 52 weeks in a year; the Ace, which is both the lowest and highest card in each suit, is symbolic of the beginning and end, alpha and omega.

From a scientific point of view, playing cards represent an invaluable demonstration and teaching aid in fields such as mathematical logic, probability and statistics.

Whether you enjoy playing cards for the thrill and uncertainty of games of chance, or because of the complex mathematics they represent, or simply because of the social interaction inherent in many card games, today is the day to celebrate all facets of card playing. So while you’re enjoying that pleasant lull between Christmas and New Year, why not pull out a deck of cards –  play an old game, learn a new one, and lose yourself in the mathematical complexities hidden in your standard card deck.

A celebration of the mind with Martin Gardner

Today we celebrate the birthday of Martin Gardner. Gardner, born in 1914, was a science writer specialising in the field of recreational mathematics, but also covering topics like magic, literature, scientific scepticism, philosophy and religion.

His most famous contribution to the popularisation of science and mathematics was the ‘Mathematical Games’ column he wrote for Scientific American for 25 year, between 1956 and 1981. Many of these columns have been collected and published as a series of books starting with ‘Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions’, first published in 1956.

So popular was Gardner (who passed away recently in 2010) that, in honour of his life and work, his birth date of October 21 has come to be known as the ‘Celebration of the Mind’. The Gathering for Gardner Foundation aims to use this day to “celebrate Martin’s life and work, and continue his pursuit of a playful and fun approach to Mathematics, Science, Art, Magic, Puzzles and all of his other interests and writings.” They encourage people to get together on the day to share mathematical or logic puzzles, paradoxes, illusions and magic tricks, or just in general engage in activities that gets the logical side of your brain buzzing.

One of the classic Gardner puzzles. Rearrange a triangle made up of six coins into a hexagon, by moving one coin at a time, with each move leaving every coin touching at least two others, as seen in the pictures.
(© All Rights Reserved)

Examples of Gardner’s puzzles are readily available online. To immerse yourself in his world of puzzles, start with the classics on There’s also an edition of the College Mathematics Journal dedicated to Martin Gardner available for free from the Mathematical Association of America.

As a teaser, here’s a few from the Gathering for Gardner website:

  • A woman either always answers truthfully, always answers falsely, or alternates true and false answers.  How, in two questions, each answered by yes or no, can you determine whether she is a truther, a liar, or an alternater?
  • You are in a room with no metal objects except for two iron rods. Only one of them is a magnet. How can you identify which one is a magnet?
  • Mr. Smith has two children.  At least one of them is a boy.  What is the probability that both children are boys?  Mr. Jones has two children.  The older child is a girl.  What is the probability that both children are girls?

Besides his interest in recreational mathematics, Gardner was an outspoken scientific sceptic with an uncompromising attitude towards pseudoscience. In his books he commented critically on a range of ‘fringe sciences’, from creationism to scientology to UFOs and the paranormal. This earned him many fans, but also many antagonists, particularly individuals operating in these fringe domains. While critical of conservative Christianity, Gardner considered himself a ‘fideistic deist’, believing in a god as creator, but critical of organized religion.

Gardner was also a leading authority on Lewis Carroll. He published ‘The Annotated Alice’, an annotated version of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’, where he discussed and explained the riddles, wordplay and literary references found in Carroll’s works. He also produced similar annotations of GK Chesterton’s works, ‘The Innocence Of Father Brown’ and ‘The Man Who Was Thursday’

Yet his most enduring contribution remains in the field of recreational mathematics and puzzles. It has famously been said that, through his writings on puzzles, tricks and paradoxes, he “turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children”.