Puzzle Background Information

The Puzzle Activity at the Musuem of Science includes three categories of puzzles:
  • Manipulable Puzzles that you pick up and hold in your hand.
  • Paper-and-Pencil Puzzles, like the kind you find in puzzle books and magazines, including ones that need to be solved with paper and pencil, and the kind you can carry around in your head and solve in your head.
  • Computer Puzzles, where you need the power, complexity, and graphic/animation of the computer to host and present the puzzle.
  • Manipulable puzzles start with the ones you give to infants -- fitting shapes into matching slots (round peg vs square hole) -- and expand upwards from there. They include jigsaw puzzles and 3-D assembly puzzles. Some of these puzzles can be assembled by fitting the pieces together in pretty much any order. Others can only be assembled by adhering to a careful sequence of assembly, perhaps involving tricky maneuvers at keys stages. Clearly the ones where the sequence of steps matters are harder than ones where the sequence of operations are not important.

    Then there are the logic puzzles like Tower of Hanoi and the hand-held electronic logic puzzles like the tetrahedron with the flashing colored lights and similar ones where the puzzle has a 'state' that changes in response to a gesture. I call these 'Finite State Automata' but that is a technical term that most people probably wouldn't know. However, they are an important class of puzzle with a rich mathematical underpinning.

    Paper-and-Pencil puzzles include word-puzzles, number-puzzles, and general diagram-on-paper puzzles (including mazes), rebus, riddle, and symbolic logic puzzles. Raymond Smullyan is renowned for this class of logic puzzle. Wil Shortz is renowned for word puzzles. These often include puzzles that one can carry in their head and solve in their head.

    Finally, the age of computers has spawned a rich variety of puzzles that can only be presented by means of a computer or electronic puzzle game with an embedded logic chip built into it. In terms of classical computer puzzles, Cliff Johnson is my favorite. His wonderful collection of computer-mediated puzzles are sometimes embedded in a weak story line, but the puzzles are dominant and the story line is mostly window dressing. You can find his work at www.fools-errand.com.

    The Rand Brothers, who developed the Myst series, are another favorite, but their puzzles tend to be pitched to all-out puzzle freaks and are mostly going to be beyond what a casual visitor to MoS could handle in one sitting.

    Cahners Computer Place has featured over the years any number of good puzzle games, including many that a casual visitor can enjoy during a brief exposure. Marble Drop is my all-time favorite example of a computer puzzle game that is perfect for casual visitors to MoS.

    The array of puzzle types offered in Cahners Computer Place includes a nice mix of all three genres -- manipulable puzzles of varying difficulty, paper-and-pencil puzzles (including ones you solve in your head), and high-tech puzzles of the electronic and computer variety. Cahners Computer Place is also planning the development of an adjunct exhibit that relates the puzzles back to mathematical concepts that undergird the architecture of various puzzles, together with some history about their origin and solution. In the future, we hope to develop some new content on Game Theory and Chaos Theory that segues into Drama Theory and StoryBook Logic (both of which tie into the Mathematical Theory of Emotions and Learning).

    By the way, there is a new web page that ties a lot of that theory together:

    Cognition, Affect, and Learning

    Back to Puzzle Links page.

    Barry Kort
    Museum of Science Puzzlemeister